Rethinking industrial hardware: ZCC invests in Actuation Lab
Actuation Lab was founded by three friends and PhD researchers at the University of Bristol; Simon, Tom and Michael. They were bought together by a shared love of innovative design, materials innovation and a passion for making industrial hardware more efficient. They now have a team of engineers and researchers at their base in the Bristol & Bath Science Park.
Actuation Lab's first two products: on the left, the Callimorph actuator and on the right, the Dragonfly Valve.
Actuation Lab are reimagining industrial hardware using the principles of origami design, in conjunction with innovative use of modern materials. For example, their Callimorph actuator is a drop-in replacement for actuators out there in their millions today, but without the sliding friction and intensive maintenance requirements. The use of modern materials means the actuators will last longer in extreme environments.
So, why is a climate fund interested in reimaginging industrial hardware?
Valves are a critical part of gas (and liquid) networks. They let network operators control the flow along the pipeline, akin to you turning on a tap at home. Valves today are almost all constructed around a central rod - called the stem - which goes through the pipe wall, terminating in something to allow the operator (or an actuator) to rotate the stem, opening and closing the valve. These stems have seals and packing to prevent leakage, but even when new, there are some losses. Over time, leakage increases as the seals wear, and these leaks - known as stem losses - can be responsible for around half the total non-intentional leakage from a natural gas network, collectively called ‘fugitive emissions’ (source). For natural gas networks, this is obviously a bad thing - natural gas is mostly methane, and the fugitive emissions are responsible for 110 Mt CO2e / year of greenhouse gasses entering the atmosphere (EC estimate).
There are many different perspectives on what roles hydrogen will be best placed to play in our zero carbon future, from steel making to long-duration energy storage. If we do this using the gas networks and hardware of today, as has already been trialled in the UK, increased fugitive emissions are inevitable. Hydrogen has only one-quarter the molecular radius of methane, so it will leak more from the same valves. It is an indirect greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential many times that of carbon dioxide - scientists are still working out the exact figure, but it’s somewhere around 11 times. So, increased use of hydrogen using the same gas transmission and storage networks of today could be a climate disaster, not to mention costly and inefficient due to pressure losses, and potentially dangerous given the explosive nature of H2. Using the IEA forecasts for hydrogen transmission and an estimated leakage rate of 6% shows that fugitive emissions of H2 from valves could be up to 165 Mt CO2e/year.
The jury is out on exactly how and where we are going to use hydrogen. Using the set of applications that we think will be mostly likely, we could save a massive 2.6 Gt CO2e/year by switching from fossil fuels to hydrogen. What we do know is that for hydrogen to play any role, we have to be able to transport and store it safely and securely, and we need a gas network fit for the purpose if we are going to do so.