Story of a collaboration that is set to run and run

Sustainable energy for the domestic and business market is a challenge that this Scottish firm is meeting head on

by Frank Simpson

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Marrying academia and industry can often be a major challenge but when Andrew Bissell of Sunamp, a leader in the field of compact heat storage devices, needed expert help in production materials, he found the perfect relationship at the University of Edinburgh. Sunamp has developed a modular system of heat batteries for both commercial and domestic use.

At a quarter the size of a standard hot water tank they can be used in a wide range of applications.

With 42% of UK energy consumption in 2007 in the form of heat, it means that as well as producing more electricity from renewable sources, the huge heat wastages embedded in the system need to be addressed.

Sunamp’s big idea was to create heat storage systems, using Phase Change Materials (PCMs) that are capable of storing and releasing heat as they change phase. “I was looking for expertise in the kind of materials we use,” says Bissell. “We had a challenge to find us an academic who can help us research, understand, formulate and develop our own PCMs.”

In 2009, Sunamp began collaborating with Professor Colin Pulham and his team at the university’s School of Chemistry to analyse the PCMs they were using. After meeting to discuss the results and issues raised from this routine work, Prof. Pulham felt his experience with PCMs could help not just with analysis but could offer the company the prospect of better, more reliable materials. “There was an immediate meeting of minds around the challenge,” adds Bissell. “We saw an opportunity to work together and the strength of this partnership has been vital to our innovative approach to the heat storage challenge.

“I knew that the science should work but to make the technology work it would require an academic expert in the field, and so finding Professor Pulham was pivotal. Sunamp had very limited resources at this point and by collaborating with Prof. Pulham this extended our team skills considerably.”

 Innovation as well as collaboration has been the key to Sunamp’s growing success. As Bissell points out, they simply couldn’t have made the product they are now making without grasping innovation. “We had to solve some pretty deep problems to develop these heat batteries and one of the biggest problems was the materials that exist on the market tend to fail over time. Like electric batteries they tend to degrade. We didn’t want that; we wanted a ‘Duracell bunny’ type product that lasted almost indefinitely. We had a tough challenge to solve because these materials intrinsically want to fall apart.”

Under the guidance of Dr David Oliver (a former PhD student who has since joined the team at Sunamp) and Professor Pulham, they were able to devise a way of stabilising the material so it lasts longer. “That’s unique; innovation in practice,” adds Bissell. We now have devices that last for a very long time, perhaps up to 20 years.

“Professor Pulham is extremely good at understanding a problem from the perspective of the company and then applying his own intellect, that of his student, the wider resources of the university and its academic networks to solving the problem.

“He and his ERI colleagues have been pragmatic and creative in developing the commercial relationship in such a way that it optimises the benefits of all parties.”