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Clean energy innovation at Oxford

Condensed Matter Physics

What would you do if you lived in remote Ireland – a region with lots of wind and expensive electricity tariffs? Well, if you’re Professor John Gregg from the Department of Physics in Oxford, you develop your own clean solution: a low-cost, novel technology wind turbine. And now, the patented technology has been awarded funding from UK Research and Innovation’s Innovate UK so it can help NGOs operating in challenging geographies.

In 2008, Professor Gregg set about devising an induction motor system to power a self-built wind turbine. Unlike anything else on the market, Professor Gregg’s technology is quick to construct, cost-efficient – it cost around £4,000 to construct – and can be built largely from local materials; it doesn’t require gearing and needs only minimal, simple maintenance, it is almost noiseless and has a small footprint. It produces enough energy to power fridges, lights, IT, WiFi and mobile services. Realising the enormous potential, Professor Gregg went on to work with Oxford University Innovation to patent it and the OxReGen technology was born.

Enormous potential

In spite of the initial excitement, a change in government policy, that saw the withdrawal of subsidies for wind energy in the UK, meant that OxReGen was put on the back burner for a time. However, when lockdown hit and Professor Gregg’s students were unable to go into the lab, it made sense to revisit it. DPhil student Sally Lord remembers: 'We could immediately see the enormous potential of OxReGen, but the initial challenge was to identify the technology’s place in the market. After discussion and advice from Oxford University Innovation, we set about finding where the technology would have the greatest impact. We made a LOT of calls – which in itself was a great learning experience – and slowly honed in on the international aid and development sector.'

The result of all of this hard work and speculation was that Sally and fellow DPhil student Finlay Ryburn, along with Professor Gregg, presented OxReGen at Net Hope last year, a global summit that addresses how to use technology to make collective and impactful progress. The team were invited to talk at NetHope by Mark Hawkins, Global Humanitarian Technology Manager for Save the Children International, who has shown ongoing support for the project ever since he was introduced to OxReGen in summer 2021. He was quick to see the turbine’s potential in providing an appealing, clean, low-cost alternative to a diesel generator – the costly and polluting solution that is currently used when setting up emergency infrastructure such as vaccination centres, schools or refugee camps. As a result, the charity is planning on using its specialist in-country experience to deploy and commission the turbine in Somalia, a country with high potential for onshore wind yet where the large majority of the population do not have access to electricity.

From prototype to mass production

Thanks to the latest funding provided by Innovate UK, OxReGen can now work to refine the technology and produce an updated prototype. Key to this is a partnership with ÉireComposites, specialists in lightweight, high-performance, fibre-reinforced composite materials. ‘I made the prototype all those years ago with some remarkable blades that were very reasonably priced and available off-the-shelf from ÉireComposites,’ recalls Professor Gregg. ‘They had actually stopped making the blades due to lack of demand; however, I am delighted to say that we are now working with ÉireComposites to manufacture a bespoke solution: the optimum low-cost; low-speed; self-starting blades for the turbine.

‘While the underpinning mechanics remain the same, we are reengineering everything with better electronics and increasing the versatility by building in battery storage. I believe that this turbine can, and will, transform lives and it is fantastic to be on the next stage of the journey.’