Flowing Praise for IT Sligo Hydropower Researcher

An IT Sligo Civil Engineering graduate and PhD student has been named among Ireland’s “most promising researchers” for a green energy initiative that would boost the country’s renewable electricity supply by bringing back to life hundreds of disused riverside mill sites.

Sean Mulligan’s design of an innovative hydropower plant is in line with the Government’s hopes for pioneering renewable technologies which will produce cheaper and cleaner energy.

The Sligoman is designing a hydraulic system to be used to generate electricity at “low head” sites such as riverside mills and other small scale/micro hydropower locations. Owners or developers would then sell it to the national grid or a site owner might decide to use it in his own home nearby.

Sean (24) says: “It‘s a very innovative concept with the potential to generate significant energy compared to conventional technologies.”

The research involves physical and mathematical modelling of the product, using advanced hydraulic testing techniques to optimise performance and efficiency. Official studies indicate that there are up to 600 water powered mills, often formerly used for grinding food grains, which could be redeveloped for electricity generation.

Sean estimates that they could contribute 25 MW to the national supply, enough to power approximately 17,000 homes.

“The majority of these sites are ‘low-head’, which means that they have a small drop between the upstream and downstream positions on a river,” he explained. “This technology can be utilised to efficiently generate energy from these low-head hydropower sites at an expected cheaper cost.”

John Casserly, who lecturers in Hydraulics at IT Sligo, said: “Sean’s project is an excellent example of a student converting a complex mathematical theory into a practical application.”

Sean intends eventually to go into business with his product and to provide consultancy on renewable technologies. In 2010, his project earned him a place in the finals of the Siemens-sponsored Engineers Ireland Innovative Student of the Year. Recently he was awarded funding from the Irish Research Council (IRC) which is enabling him to continue his Doctorate studies

Now the National Digital Research Centre (NRDC) and the IRC have now selected him and 14 other leading researchers for places on a new commercial mentoring programme. Called “From Basic Research to Business Models”, its aim is to provide the researchers with knowledge support to enable them to bring their ideas to market.

Science lecturer Richard Sherlock said: “No doubt Sean will benefit hugely from the programme and from being in the company of a select group of Ireland’s brightest young innovators.  And hopefully, he can bring home much of what he learns to carve out a successful business for himself that will be of economic benefit to the Northwest.”

Sean, who is in the third year of a PhD research degree, said: “I chose Civil Engineering at IT Sligo because it is a hugely varied discipline in which you apply engineering science and mathematics in basically everything that’s going in day to day life. As well, it has great scope for technological innovation.”

His hydro plant design imitates the principles and process by which water swirls and drains away when a plug is taken out of a sink. “When you pull the plug out of a sink a vortex or a whirlpool effect is developed. This design idea takes that same action by generating it in a specialised hydraulic structure to concentrate hydraulic energy at a single location where it can be extracted efficiently,” he said.

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