A fitting tribute - the Maurice Hancock Smart Energy Lab

Hundreds of metres of wire and cabling loop their way around the Maurice Hancock Smart Energy Lab – creating a laboratory scale simulation of a real-world electricity supply infrastructure, and offering researchers the perfect environment to put their theories to the test.

Portrait of Lauriane Thorner and Nathaniel Bottrell
Lauriane Thorner and Nathaniel Bottrell soldering voltage sensor boards in the Maurice Hancock Smart Energy Laboratory.

The Smart Energy Lab is named after Dr Maurice Hancock, an alumnus and former staff-member, who in 2006 left a bequest of £1.3 million in recognition of his long relationship with the College, and to advance its research in engineering.

The remit for the Smart Energy Lab is to develop and test new technologies that allow energy generation, particularly renewable energy generation, to be better matched to consumer demand. At its heart is a suite of hardware that can be set up to replicate different energy generation and distribution systems, replicating the conditions of a real electrical grid on a laboratory scale. The Lab offers an important tool for verifying theoretical models, says Phil Clemow, a research associate based in the Lab: “It’s all very well to develop computer models and to publish simulated results, but in electrical engineering you need real, hardware results to be convincing.”

From the outset, the hardware in the Smart Energy Lab was designed to be easily customised — a “plug and play” approach that allows researchers to conduct complex experiments without needing to spend time on building the basic infrastructure needed for the work.  “The idea behind the Lab was to have as much pre-built as possible,” says Nathaniel Bottrell, a research associate working in the Lab. “The systems in the lab are designed to be easily reconfigured — to set up for an experiment takes only a few hours and doesn’t require a background in building hardware. Because so much of the basic infrastructure is built into the lab, you can come into the lab and get results in two weeks, without having to spend months building the experimental hardware.”

Recent research at the Lab is exploring how new forms of high voltage DC electrical grids can be used to connect offshore wind farms to national networks, and to link national networks together in a cross-border “super grid”. These super-grids would help countries to match energy demand and supply better, and to compensate for fluctuations in energy supply from renewable sources. Phil Clemow explains: “The idea is to link country grids together so that different countries can buy electricity from each other. By clubbing together we can average out peaks and troughs in energy supply from renewable energy sources. It’s not a green technology itself – but it’s an enabler of renewable energy.”

Five years after its launch, the Maurice Hancock Lab remains a vital resource for the development of new approaches to energy control. “Maurice Hancock’s gift to the College was vital in establishing the Smart Energy Lab,” says Professor Timothy Green, Director of the Lab. “It allowed us to attract other sponsors from industry, and to construct one of the UK’s most sophisticated facilities for research in power systems. Throughout his teaching and research career, electrical power engineering was one of Dr Hancock’s main interests. It is fitting that his generosity lives on in the Maurice Hancock Smart Energy Lab, which has done so much to advance the College’s research in this field.”