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The University of Southampton
Public Policy|Southampton

Benjamin Craig's Placement with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency

Benjamin Craig
Benjamin Craig

As an engineer who has lived in Southampton for well over a decade now, I can confirm that sooner or later, big boats get under your skin.

I am currently studying for an Integrated PhD (MSc + PhD) in Energy Storage and its Applications. I’d been working in defence for several years as a systems engineer, but wanted to join the green revolution, and all of the cutting edge research seemed to be in energy storage.

Wanting to stay in Southampton while returning to my systems engineering roots, I jumped at a placement advertised by Public Policy Southampton (PPS) to conduct a horizon scan of the future of batteries in the marine sector for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). It was perfectly aligned with my background: combining systems engineering of complex vehicles with advanced battery technologies, the focal point of my PhD.

The timing was perfect. The relationship between the MCA and the University of Southampton (UoS) is steadily developing, leading to a fruitful harvest of academic knowledge particularly within the Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute (SMMI) by this particular Government department. The MCA Future Technologies group was in its infancy when I started my placement. Its goal? To revolutionise the UK shipping industry, by acting as consultant and regulator to UK industry in order to ensure 2050 emissions targets are met.

Since batteries were a relatively new area to the MCA, I had a lot of freedom to define the scope of the project. As a chartered engineer, I had the experience to know that without significant design work, it would not be possible in a 3-month timeframe to carry out multiple first-principles feasibility studies or lifecycle analyses. It would be more appropriate to gather all the information I could about battery systems already in use on boats, and to generalise from that.

Then I could bring together my detailed knowledge about batteries which I had gained from my PhD studies. By comparing one potential future battery to another and against the benchmark of what had been achieved in practise with today’s technology, I had a robust approach to discussing the potential future of batteries on boats that was achievable in the limited timeframe.

The scope was agreed, and the work began. Meetings throughout the project were attended by both PPS and the MCA, and I have rarely worked with such an engaged and friendly group. PPS are helping to create an open, friendly, accepting working style for those doing placements through them, and this certainly helped to make the work a success. The only obstacle I faced was the pace at which I could persuade my brain to work under lockdown conditions!

I brought the work together into a report and a slideshow with a recorded voiceover. The work was well received. I summarised: batteries were here to stay, but on boats even more than on cars, the range of fully electric boats would always be limited to less than a few hundred kilometres due to the additional drag of water. However, in hybrid systems, batteries would complement almost any other energy conversion technology such as fuel cells or LNG-powered engines, allowing these technologies to operate in the most efficient way, more of the time.

And what future batteries would these be? I felt the evidence pointed towards the dominance of solid-state lithium over at least the next two decades, with manufacturers already seeking approval for automotive use, and lithium-air seemingly as unobtainable as nuclear fusion. As well as packing more energy for a given space and weight, solid-state technology should be much safer than today’s batteries – ideal for big boats, where you cannot call the fire brigade if the battery experiences a ‘thermal event’.

Several months later in the darkness of January 2021, I found myself reflecting fondly on the work I had done to assist the MCA with its well-defined, meaningful quest to decarbonise UK shipping. Browsing Civil Service Jobs, with one year remaining of my studies, I found an advert for an ‘Emission Reduction Technical Specialist’. It was a natural fit, but it clearly needed filling right away. I asked if the MCA would accept a part-time application. I am happy to say I start on the 1st of March, from which point, I will begin two years of part-time work, part-time study – with a view to going full-time at the end of my studies.

PPS are doing excellent work to connect students and academics to policy makers. I would encourage anyone wanting to see impact from their work to consider the placements on offer. There might be a preconception that policy makers do not do technical work, but while it is true they take a more ‘high-level’ approach to technology than someone working on the details of electrolyte composition in a battery, for example, there are real opportunities to turn your technical expertise into advice that can help shape the future of the nation and the globe. These opportunities can be rare in academia - and I would argue that a lot of PhD students do not know what they are missing.

Find out more about Benjamin's placement Read The Future of Batteries in the Marine Sector: What lies Beyond the Horizon? report
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