Postgrad Lives: 'I'm interested in sustainable energy, so I just went for it'

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The Independent Online

Alan Whitaker, 25, is doing an MSc in Sustainable Energy Futures at Imperial College, London.

What's the course all about?

At the moment the world faces two major problems. One is climate change and the other is energy shortages. Sustainable energy is about providing energy for us to live our lives in such a way that we can continue doing so for ever.

Why did you choose it?

When I finished my chemistry degree at Oxford, I was at a bit of a loose end. I did a few odd jobs, then worked selling measuring instruments for a year and a half. All this time, I knew I was interested in sustainable energy, but I didn't know it was something I could move in to with my background . But I was browsing MSc courses one day and I found this course, which said it was for engineering or physical sciences graduates with maths involved as well. I realised it was just right for me, and thought "I'll go for it".

How is it taught?

Half of it is lectures, classes, tutorials and then exams; that's in the first two terms. And then in the summer term we all have to do a research project.

What's your project on?

I'm doing one on modelling and optimisation of future chemical centres. At the moment chemical plants or power stations tend to take one fuel in, like coal for example, and produce one product: electricity. I am investigating a new concept called a chemical centre which would take in multiple inputs, including coal, biomass and natural gas, and have multiple products, which might include electricity, other fuels (methanol, for example), hydrogen and heat. There are several advantages of this. One is that doing all this together in one place gives higher efficiency and saves energy. But the main reason I'm doing the project is that it involves computer modelling techniques, which I'm really interested in.

What do you like best about the course?

As a scientist it introduces you to economic and policy principles that you wouldn't be familiar with otherwise. It gives you the tools to analyse energy systems and it teaches you a lot of detail about the engineering and technology involved. It also includes group and teamwork, and making presentations, both of which have been useful because I didn't do much of that in my first degree.

Where do you hope it'll take you?

I'm quite interested in working for a power company. And energy consultancy seems interesting too, because you get to work with different problems. Plus, if possible, I'd like to work with computer modelling.

What did it cost?

The course fee for UK students is £3,000. But I was lucky and got a grant through Imperial from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council which covered all my fees and gave me about £15,000 in living costs.

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