An Interview with Claire Spooner, Head of Decarbonising Transport at EPSRC, part of UKRI

What’s your role and responsibility within your current organisation and how does it fit in with the wider industry?

I am Head of Decarbonising Transport at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) part of UK Research and Innovation, where I look after the research domain on the decarbonisation of transport – looking at issues as diverse as sustainable aviation fuels, EV battery developments, novel materials for low carbon infrastructure and energy efficient new transport modalities. This is a new post to EPSRC and highlights the importance of tackling decarbonisation with the transportation sector and ensuring the necessary research is developed to meet our net zero targets. I also lead for UKRI on COP26 stakeholder engagement.

Talk us through your career to date, what have been the stand-out moments for you?

I have always been passionate about transportation – In a previous life I worked for Network Rail as a project manager, but this interest has evolved over time through my work in UKRI – where I have worked for various research councils predominately in the environmental sustainability space. Climate change and the need to decarbonise are pressing challenges that we urgently need to tackle, and it is an honour to be able to contribute to that effort.

A standout moment in my career was as a graduate trainee with Networks Rails, standing at the top of the Forth Rail Bridge as well as travelling to the bottom of the bridge structure was quite an introduction to the industry. My role involved walking down tracks, standing on station roofs, hiding in small signalling boxes with dissolving wires and rushing to bridge crashes to check the infrastructure was safe and led to me becoming a borderline train spotter.

During my time it the research councils I had a tour round Culham Centre for Fusion Energy and saw all the amazing equipment supported by Eurofusion and UKR. The research effort on renewable energies will ensure that vehicle electrification is a sustainable endeavour, and the trip imprinted on me the vast scale research and innovation necessary to achieve Net Zero.

How has the demand for electrification changed in the past five years?

Demand for clean renewable energy has soared over the last five years – with electrification of vehicles accelerating the demand, with 2020 being the first year that renewables were the main source of the UK’s electricity. This is an exciting situation to be in as the demand for EVs increase, with the opportunity for sustainable production of the fuel source.

The climate assembly’s that took place during 2020 highlight the high level of engagement in this space that is underpinned by choice, fairness and accessibility on the path to NetZero.

How are you and your team preparing for the national push towards greener transport?

We fund fundamental, mission inspired and translational research to assist the UK in meeting its decarbonisation targets, taking an interdisciplinary, whole systems approach to deliver the necessary technological innovations and behavioural change required. We undertake scoping, developing and commissioning of research followed by robust investment management and evaluation activities. This involves a lot of liaison across industry, academia and government to ensure that we support the right topics for the future.

What areas of research are your organisation currently funding?

EPSRC’s portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future UK prosperity by contributing to a healthy, connected, resilient, productive nation. The Energy Programme brings together the work of EPSRC and that of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and aims to position the UK to meet its energy and environmental targets and policy goals through world-class research and training. In addition, we support a wide range of relevant investments from Transport Networks looking at aspects of decarbonising the UK transport system, sustainable road freight, hydrogen generation, storage and utilisation to the Supergen centres looking at sustainable power generation. A key area of support is through the Faraday Battery Challenge, and the work of the Faraday Institution which focusses on electrochemical energy storage research, skills development, market analysis, and early-stage commercialisation. This research and innovation supports the UK’s target to reduce carbon emissions by 78% by 2035 – which is an enormous task requiring changes to every sector of energy generation, supply, use and regulation.

What emerging electric vehicle technologies are you most excited about?

It would be amazing to have an affordable production EV with a reliable range of over 450 miles – most range anxiety occurs at a range that many people don’t usually travel, with the average daily travel in the UK of 30 miles. However, I live 451 miles from my parent’s house, and it would be good to know I can see them regularly and get there safely in one journey!

Why are you involved in our show and what do you hope to get out of it?

I am looking forward to meeting the attendees of this very diverse conference – with three connected industries coming together for one event – there is a tremendous opportunity for this unique gathering to create and develop synergies which may not have otherwise occurred. The last 18 months have been a period of massive change and being able to network in person with the attendees and hear the emerging themes for the batteries, advanced materials and vehicle electrification is to be savoured.

If you could have a conversation with any person, alive or dead, who would it be, and why?

I would like to chat to Sarah Bernard – Michael Faradays wife. Little is known about her and it would be interesting to understand her journey through life and her accomplishments – indeed as Faraday acknowledge she was a “pillow to his mind” and while we do know that she took over his administrative duties at the Royal Institution when his health decline in the mid-1860s – there are limited details to what this involved and how the community he engaged with responded to her undertaking this role? Often texts on Michael Faraday only refer to his “wife” – a sadly nameless role – and it would be good to flesh out her existence.