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Food chain reaction

The new Centre for Sustainable Energy Use in Food Chains at Brunel University is set to provide a research platform into improving cold storage efficiency, says Professor Savvas Tassou

Like many good ideas, the inspiration for the new Centre for Sustainable Energy Use in Food Chains at Brunel University came from necessity – in this case it was the need to reduce energy use across the food supply chain. 

Proposals by RCUK (Research Councils UK) had previously called for the establishment of multidisciplinary research centres to address End Use Energy Demand Reduction (EUED) in the UK.

Specifically, EUED research is concerned with reducing the amount of energy required to maintain economic activity and to achieve sustainable lifestyles. EUED can be sub divided in several ways, for example by:

  • nsector – industry, buildings, and transport;
  • nservices – passenger and freight transport, structural materials, sustenance, hygiene (household and personal cleanliness), thermal comfort, communication and lighting;
  • nend uses – food, entertainment, health, education, heating, cooling and refrigeration and travel.

Influencing demand

As the principal investigator, I thought we should formulate a proposal on energy demand reduction in the food sector because of its important role in food security, its large contribution to the UK’s end use energy demand – 18 per cent of the total – and significant greenhouse gas emissions (195 MtCO2e).

The topic is also multidisciplinary, as energy demand is influenced significantly by corporate and consumer behaviour, government policy, prices etc.

The centre involves three academic partners – Brunel, Manchester and Birmingham. The three partners have strong international reputations in their fields and complementary expertise that together covers the whole chain from farm gate to plate.

Brunel has expertise in the area of energy, refrigeration and food processing and retail. The Manchester team has expertise in life cycle environmental impact assessment of food products, human behaviour and process engineering. The Birmingham team has expertise in formulation engineering and food processing technologies.

The key motivation is to be a premier hub for research into energy, resource use and sustainability of the food chain with an international reputation, high visibility and significant impact.

Centre researchers will carry out fundamental research into innovative technologies and approaches that will have significant impacts and contribute to the government’s long-term greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, combined with research that will have demonstrable impacts in the short term, while taking into consideration socio-economic and behavioural aspects.

Current efficiency

To get a handle on the current level of efficiency when it comes to food storage, a recent EU-funded project, entitled Improving Cold storage Equipment in Europe, has shown the potential for energy savings in cold storage to be about 30-40 per cent (up to 72 per cent in some cases). It is claimed that this is achievable by optimising usage of the stores, and repairing or retrofitting the current equipment.

At the centre we agree that significant energy savings can be achieved in cold storage operations through better maintenance and optimisation of operations as well as the application of new technologies.

Initially, the plan is to formulate projects that cover the entire food chain and food storage and transportation is one of the areas to be addressed. We are currently in the process of talking to relevant stakeholders for the formulation of projects to address this area.

In terms of involvement and consultation with supermarkets, the centre involves 33 partner organisations including four retail food chains and seven food manufacturers. The retailers and manufacturers will be involved in the formulation of projects that will address energy demand reduction in food distribution and retail, while the industrial partners and associations will also provide data and other material for case studies and benchmarking.

As a ballpark figure, improvements of 30-40 per cent energy savings in chilled/frozen food storage should be achievable.

Furthermore, the findings by the centre are expected to influence future government policy in the area as the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Energy and Climate Change  are represented on the Centre’s Steering Committee.

The centre will also disseminate results and outputs from the project very widely through publications, presentations, dedicated website etc. We will also present results to policymakers and the relevant officers of the EU and other relevant bodies.

Professor Savvas Tassou is head of Brunel University’s School of Engineering and Design

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