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Nottingham researchers help bridge the urban and rural divide in the UK and India

Academics at The University of Nottingham are to receive more than £5 million in UK funding for research that will aim to make rural living in both the UK and India more sustainable.

The money will be used for projects investigating opportunities for small scale energy generation through renewable sources, developing a new autonomous green power system and promoting greater use of mobile technologies to grow wealth in rural communities.

The projects are being supported by the Bridging the Urban and Rural Divide (BURD) initiative with more than £7 million from Research Councils UK (RCUK). Researchers at the University will also receive significant matched resources from the Indian Government's Department of Science and Technology (DST) and will work closely on the projects with their peers in India.

A £2.6 million project, led by Michčle Clarke, Professor of Environmental Change, at Nottingham and involving the universities of Birmingham, Loughborough, Leicester, Manchester Metropolitan University and Liverpool Hope, will aim to address the dependence of rural communities on fossil fuels.

The project will involve using technological innovations in small-scale energy generation coupled with tailored rural enterprise business models to create Rural Hybrid Energy Enterprise Systems, which can be adapted to address the similar challenges experienced by those living in rural communities in both the UK and India.

The research will focus on three communities in the UK — the Peak District, Lincolnshire and north Scotland (Caithness, Sutherland, Easter Ross and Orkney) — and three communities in India — Karnataka, Jharkhand and the NE (Assam).

New technologies developed during the project will be piloted at villages in Karnataka, south India, Assam, North East India and the University's dairy farm at its Sutton Bonington Campus in Leicestershire.

The project will have three main themes:

  • Rural Energy and Renewable Resources — Assessing access to energy services, surveying supply and demand and mapping potential of existing biomass and renewable energy resources while engaging with local communities.

  • Community and Business Enterprise — investigating rural community attitudes to the need and potential of proposed energy technologies and developing new business strategies for sustaining energy generation at a community level.

  • Hybrid Energy Systems — Developing innovative, low-carbon, sustainable biomass-fuelled hybrid energy systems at a scale suitable for community use. The new technologies will use small scale anaerobic digestion — the microbiological breakdown of organic matter such as agricultural waste to produce methane (biogas) — in conjunction with biomass gasification coupled with fuel cell technologies to produce and store energy for cooking, heat or transport. The systems will also produce other useful by-products including nutrient-rich organic waste which can be sold as an organic fertiliser and soil improver.

Professor Clarke said: "About 20 per cent of the UK population and 72 per cent of the Indian population live in rural communities, where access to resources, amenities and services are inherently different to those of urban dwellers. Rural communities in both countries share similar challenges, including poor rural transport links and limited access to healthcare and affordable energy. Universal access to clean and efficient energy sources has long been viewed as critical to global needs and expanding access to good quality, stable, energy options in rural areas is therefore essential.

"In this exciting interdisciplinary project we aim to develop community-scale hybrid renewable energy systems coupled with appropriately tailored rural enterprise/business models which can be adapted for local needs in the UK and India."

In another project, funded with £1.4 million, Nottingham researchers will work with experts from Heriot-Watt and Leeds universities in the UK to develop a new renewable energy system which combines solar power and bioenergy to bring electricity to homes in a remote Indian village.

This project will aim to develop a new class of concentrated photovoltaic technology to integrate with biomass and waste gas production and to develop high-efficiency hydrogen generation and storage for the back-up power.

The integrated system will be installed at Uttar Sehalai Tribal Hamlet, which is located 200km west of Calcutta and has 80 homes and a population of around 400 people. The prototype system will be the first of its kind ever to be installed in India.

Gavin Walker, Professor in Sustainable Energy, will be working to investigate the hydrogen system that uses waste heat and electricity from the solar powered cells and the hydrogen and methane generated from renewable energy sources such as waste biomass.

Professor Walker said: "Due to the lack of electricity in the village, the major fuels currently used are kerosene, firewood and wood-based raw coal. Most of the nearby villages are also without any grid connections and, as a result, children from the poorer families do not have the motivation and necessary resources to take advantage of basic education and health.

"Availability of energy is a critical driving factor in economic development, while limited fossil fuel resources and environmental hazards drive the need for sustainable and environmentally-friendly solutions based on renewable energy."

In a £1.26 million project, researchers from Horizon Digital Economy Research at Nottingham and the Centre for Technology and Development in New Delhi will lead an international team including, the Future Interaction Technology lab at Swansea University, IIT Bombay, NISTADS in New Delhi, alongside industrial partners including Microsoft Research India, and IBM Research Laboratory in India.

Although a world apart, organic food producers in Ceredigion in west Wales and non-edible oil producers in Uttarakhand in the foothills of the Himalayas both increasingly struggle to get a decent price for their goods. One reason for this is that these communities both lack the scale to maximise their position in an increasingly global market place.

The sustainability of small communities is a huge issue in rural areas. Rural enterprises in both the UK and India struggle without the communication and distribution infrastructures found in urban-industrial areas.

Dr Catherine Mulligan said: "We will develop new technologies to allow communities to shape the next generation of rural enterprises. This will allow rural enterprises to achieve the economies of scale and retain control of the supply chain dynamics that currently work against them.

"Mobile technologies have already allowed rural communities across the world greater access to information and expertise, leading to the creation of new local enterprises. The next challenge is helping these communities exploit these technologies to coordinate their activities in order to scale up the levels of production and compete on a level playing field with urban enterprises."

Provided by University of Nottingham