Industry Collaborations 

Issue 3 - Industry CollWater researchers at the University of Sheffield are developing strong strategic partnerships with many of the leading companies in the UK water industry.

With projects ranging from fundamental to applied research, the University now has a diversity of activities and sponsorship that has led to it being acknowledged as a leading authority on water and environmental sustainability.

The interdisciplinary Pennine Water Group (PWG), for instance, has grown over the last 12 years to become the largest team of its kind in the country with relationships spanning the sector, including a longstanding partnership with Yorkshire Water.

“We now have a second strategic partnership with Yorkshire Water which looks at both clean and waste water infrastructure. However, both parties have been looking to broaden that partnership as the company has been re-defining its direction around an evolving set of strategic business objectives,” said Professor Joby Boxall of the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering and the Research Manager leading the PWG’s strategic programme of research into potable water distribution systems.

“We are mapping out how we can engage with them in a way that helps realise their strategic business objectives,” Professor Boxall added. And while it is still early days, two projects involving the Management School are soon to get underway – the first of which will look at the efficiency of the supply chain and how it affects the company’s desire to reduce its carbon footprint.

The PWG’s expertise was recently recognised with the award of an unprecedented third round Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Platform grant worth £1.4 million to help expand its research activity. In addition, the team has also secured funding from the Technology Strategy Board, the European Union, the Environment Agency and a number of industrial backers.

Given that the PWG has generated such a wide range of tools and techniques over the years that are being used across the country, it comes as little surprise that the members of its advisory board reads like a Who’s Who of the water industry.

Indeed, it is the University of Sheffield’s search for solutions to problems that are common across the water industry that has lead to them being held in such high esteem and to be in such high demand.

The Prediction and control of Discolouration in Distribution Systems (PODDS ) project, for instance, which was originally funded by the EPSRC, is now seeking to enter its fifth phase. The project team is seen as such a valuable asset to the industry that United Utilities, Wessex Water, Yorkshire Water, Severn Trent and Northumbrian Water are all now longstanding partners.

“What started out as a relatively small, but highly adventurous project, has evolved into a consortium model where we are jointly funded to help the industry find solutions to common challenges, helping them to deliver significant service improvements to customers and operational efficiencies. Discolouration is often the single biggest problem that customers complain about in the water supply sector.” said Professor Boxall.

Phase five of the PODDS project will draw on some of the more fundamental scientific work the University has been carrying out under the separate – but related – Pipe Dreams project. This is an EPSRC Challenging Engineering project that is fusing computer science and microbiology with engineering to drive a paradigm shift in the way in which the performance of water distribution systems are understood, operated, rehabilitated and maintained. In particular Pipe Dreams has been investigating the microbiology that develops on pipe surfaces.

“So far this research has been carried out in a controlled, managed, pure research way,” he added. “What we now want to do is to identify those aspects of this research that will be of real benefit to the water industry and, ultimately, its customers. So what we are going to do is to take this idealised, lab-based microbiological understanding and apply it in a practical way to help the industry.”

Professor Boxall, though a leading authority on ageing buried pipework, acknowledges that working closely with industry for over a decade has helped him develop a talent for pulling together inter-disciplinary teams that are much more than the sum of their parts.

“Getting the right people together who are then focused on solving a problem is one of the things that we do well here at Sheffield. While people in the industry are busy facing tough day-to-day decisions, we can step back a bit from that and take a longer-term, more transformative look at what the industry needs well beyond its five year cycles.”

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