Building a sustainable career
For many engineers, it was playing around with machines that got them hooked on the subject: cars and motorcycles are often cited as common catalysts. For Dr Shaun Fitzgerald FREng this was a minor interest, so much so that he was a bit surprised when he turned up for one interview and was asked to assemble a bag of bits. “I still remember the interview,” he says. Dr Fitzgerald was still at school and looking for someone to sponsor his degree. “The interviewer was clearly trying to assess how practical I was and whether I could do it. I found it completely uninspiring.” The bottom line, he adds, was that “it didn’t interest me”. For Dr Fitzgerald, who recently took over as Director of the Royal Institution (Ri), engineering meant something very different from manual dexterity, or completing tasks more suited to a mechanic. He had higher aspirations, wanting to make the world a better place through science.
Studying science at school nudged Dr Fitzgerald towards engineering. “I absolutely loved physics and chemistry. I still remember the lessons on inorganic chemistry and just finding the melding of physics with the chemistry lessons. I could see how one fed from the other and vice-versa, but the one thing that really got me going was how it can impact our world. I just got so excited about the use of science to change the world for good.”
the one thing that really got me going was how it can impact our world. I just got so excited about the use of science to change the world for good
He found that opportunity at GEC Research, as an engineering apprentice and sponsored student. Along with sponsorship for his engineering degree course at the University of Cambridge, the company offered students a holiday job. The company was, as he puts it, “thinking about the future, about the development of current ideas to make the world a better place”. GEC also focused on electrical engineering and the energy business, subjects that took Dr Fitzgerald’s fancy and were rooted in science.
After three months at GEC, Dr Fitzgerald began working on a project to develop the first contactless credit card. “That was about the future of commerce and how you didn’t have to have a magnetic stripe on your card, and it can have a chip on it.” He found it “massively exciting. I ended up doing the coding in assembler code. It was very cutting edge at the time. This was going to change the way that people interacted and how people bought things. This was engineering at its best in my view. The fire had been ignited into my love for science and the application thereof, and the world of engineering.”
Dr Fitzgerald had caught the energy bug on his engineering course at the University of Cambridge. At the end of his second year, he should have spent the summer working at GEC for eight weeks. Instead, he had arranged to spend the long holiday touring energy installations in the US. “I was just so amazed by what was going on in the US, I wanted to go and see it for myself. I visited solar power and wind farms, tidal power facilities, and geothermal hot dry rocks, from the eastern extremities of northern Canada down to the southwest coast.”
It was geothermal energy that really caught Dr Fitzgerald’s attention. “This was the most beautiful area because it was about physics, in terms of the fluid mechanics of flowing pipes and steam and research that I had been doing at Cambridge. It also had threads of what you can learn about geothermal reservoirs from the chemistry,” he adds. Geochemistry was not something that had intruded on his degree course. “I still harked back to my A-level days. It was just the most beautiful example of an integrated science and engineering problem that I wanted to get involved in.”
I was just so amazed by what was going on in the US, I wanted to go and see it for myself. I visited solar power and wind farms, tidal power facilities, and geothermal hot dry rocks, from the eastern extremities of northern Canada down to the southwest coast
Much as he had enjoyed his year in industry, Dr Fitzgerald still wanted that PhD, so it was back to Cambridge and the Institute of Theoretical Geophysics to work on the optimisation of geothermal power projects. It was about understanding how liquid is heated and vaporised when injected into depleted geothermal reservoirs, developing mathematical models of heat and mass transfer processes. There were also some novel laboratory experiments to test the models and their predictions.
With the research done, it was back to the US for a year and some more industrial experience. He picked over a geothermal project in Nevada to work out how best to operate it as a money-making venture. He then spent three years in academia, first at Cambridge and then at Stanford University as Geothermal Program Manager and Acting Assistant Professor. The US was clearly more interesting to someone who had accumulated plenty of expertise in geothermal energy. The UK was, after all, hardly a hotbed of enthusiasm for this particular form of renewable energy. Stanford, in contrast, ran an active research programme in geothermal reservoir engineering that continues to this day. Although he enjoyed the engineering, he became dissatisfied with the academic’s role and decided to make a career change and to move into the world of commerce.
As much as Dr Fitzgerald wanted to find a way of combining these different topics, there was not anyone in Cambridge’s engineering department with deep expertise in the area. Instead of leaving the undergraduate to his own resources, the head of the department pointed him in the direction of the Earth sciences department, led by Lord Oxburgh KBE HonFREng FRS. Spotting someone with drive and initiative, Lord Oxburgh did not do the obvious and pass Dr Fitzgerald on to another academic. Instead he suggested that he contact Tony Batchelor, who had set up GeoScience Limited and had expertise running hot-rock projects in Cornwall. Lord Oxburgh urged the student to work at GeoScience for a year and expose himself to the geothermal industry, before returning to do a PhD at Cambridge.
Lord Oxburgh urged the student to work at GeoScience for a year and expose himself to the geothermal industry, before returning to do a PhD at Cambridge
Dr Fitzgerald spent a year with the company. “That year was actually just the most amazing experience,” he recalls. It was great to be working for a small company that was just a year old. The work involved doing “really cool stuff in the world of geothermal” along with work for the oil industry “that paid the bills”. GeoScience also gave the graduate opportunities that would have been unlikely with larger businesses. He was sent to the US to attend a week-long conference on geothermal energy at Stanford University. He was also under orders to learn something about the power side of the industry as the plant needed to turn the reservoir’s energy resources into useful electricity. The week turned into six weeks, as Dr Fitzgerald immersed himself in the engineering of geothermal energy. He even managed to sell some consulting work on the back of solving a problem he had identified in a geothermal reservoir. Pipes kept getting blocked by scale and it was impractical to shut everything down for a monthly clean up. “I built them a model in Excel, which was the first piece of work that I’d ever sold. They still use it apparently.”
Dr Fitzgerald had other reasons for returning to the UK, as his wife had qualified as a doctor. In the US, she would have had to retrain. Add that to his commercial aspirations, and their family plans, and everything pointed towards a return to the UK, even if it meant moving into a different area of engineering. He thought about studying for an MBA, but decided to look for a paid job that would deliver the knowledge that comes with an MBA. So in 1997, he started work as a senior consultant at Bain & Company. He worked as a strategy consultant within “a whole raft of different industries”.
The company didn’t hire Fitzgerald as an engineer, but thanks to his experience he did more engineering than other people – certainly enough to maintain his enthusiasm for the subject. After four years with Bain, he decided to go back into engineering, but the question arose as to what area of engineering would appeal to a specialist in geothermal energy. “Part of the reason why I was successful at Stanford was that I had become one of the world experts in geothermal and phase transition within geothermal reservoirs.” Oddly, perhaps, this turned out to be a good backing for work on ventilation in buildings. It is not fundamentally different from geothermal reservoirs, he explains, because “it is a fluid mechanics heat-transfer problem. I have always felt very comfortable getting into the world of research on natural ventilation buildings, because it is fluid mechanics.” There was also the added connection to another engineering interest, energy.
I have always felt very comfortable getting into the world of research on natural ventilation buildings, because it is fluid mechanics
Once again, Cambridge connections proved invaluable and he returned to the university to join a new research programme on natural ventilation in buildings, combining energy and fluid mechanics. It was not long before Dr Fitzgerald succumbed to his need to get the word out to the commercial world. “I wasn’t just interested in publishing papers and having them gathering dust on a library shelf. I was interested in publishing papers and sharing the insights about the research to the practising world, the architectural and engineering community designing buildings, to help them understand how they could design their buildings more efficiently.” A key aspect of their approach to the design of comfortable and energy efficient buildings was to use natural ventilation rather than refrigeration units and mechanical ventilation.
One way to pass on that research was to “do a bit of consulting on the side”, as Dr Fitzgerald puts it. Cambridge University Technical Services provides a safe environment for academics to do consulting work, handling things such as insurance and contract management. “It is a very sensible, great place to start.”
It soon became clear that although the architects and design engineers liked the concept, when they put them into their specifications, the builders were less than enthusiastic. “They rightly said, and this is a correct challenge from the contractors, ‘Lovely ideas, lovely designs, who can I buy the system from that will do this?’ They just wanted to ‘buy a box’ to bolt on to their buildings. Without that, they responded, ‘I’m going to tear up your design and just replace it with the old designs, which use mechanical ventilation.’ They wanted a ‘plug and play’ option.”
There was an obvious answer, set up a business to build the boxes. Dr Fitzgerald set up Breathing Buildings, as a commercial enterprise “to make products” based on the research carried out in the BP Institute at the university. The company was not just an experiment in commercialising technology to the market. For one of its investors, BP, it was a testbed for how to commercialise academic research that it had backed via a spin-out route. The oil giant may have put a lot of money into university research, but it had never brought results to market using the route before, when acting in a dual role as venture capitalist and a contributor of university intellectual property to which it had certain rights. BP was an early investor when Breathing Buildings started operations in 2006.
Dr Fitzgerald’s aim was to force the building industry to pay serious attention to natural ventilation. “When we set up, we were the only people in town.” He wanted to change that. If companies designing and installing conventional ventilation systems could no longer sell the old stuff, they would have to change their ways and become competitors in the natural ventilation business. As Dr Fitzgerald sees it, “real success is when you have changed industry”.
real success is when you have changed industry
That seems to have worked. Breathing Buildings has persuaded the industry that there is a lot to be said for its concept of ‘hybrid ventilation’, using pure natural ventilation when external weather conditions are favourable, combined with mechanical ventilation at other times. The technology takes heat from people, lights, IT and even solar energy in a building and exploits it to avoid the need for radiators. This approach not only cuts energy use, but does it at no extra cost for the installation. “Our kit doesn’t cost any more and the payback is zero years, so the return on investment is infinity.” This explains why the company has created systems for schools, universities, supermarkets, shopping malls and one building that claims to be the UK’s first zero-energy retail building.
When it was clear that the building industry had caught on, Dr Fitzgerald decided that further progress would come quicker if Breathing Buildings became part of a larger group. With its own factory in Ely and a team of around 50 people, the company wanted to keep growing. “I believed that the next phase of growth for Breathing Buildings should involve a much stronger relationship with a mechanical ventilation company.” In December 2016, Breathing Buildings became a part of Volution.
Breathing Buildings has persuaded the industry that there is a lot to be said for its concept of ‘hybrid ventilation’, using pure natural ventilation when external weather conditions are favourable, combined with mechanical ventilation at other times
A new role
Dr Fitzgerald was ready for another career move. He plans to spend some time at the University of Cambridge where he is Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor in Sustainable Buildings. He lectures building physics and, as part of other degree courses, on innovation, sustainability and construction. Then there is supervision of undergraduate research projects. The most important aspect of that from an undergraduate point of view, he says, is not the research output but the experience. It is important, he adds, to keep engineers in the profession when they graduate. “It has frustrated me greatly, being a supervisor at Cambridge and seeing undergraduates who go off and work in the city and then five years later are as bored as anything.” At Cambridge, he said, “I wanted to inspire the next generation and give people a greater understanding of the joy and the fun, and the impact that science and engineering can have on people’s lives.”
The most important aspect of that from an undergraduate point of view, he says, is not the research output but the experience. It is important, he adds, to keep engineers in the profession when they graduate
Career timeline and distinctions
Born, 1966. Master of Arts in Engineering, University of Cambridge, 1989. PhD in fluid mechanics and thermodynamics of flow in geothermal reservoirs at the University of Cambridge, 1990–1993. Geothermal Program Manager, Acting Assistant Professor at Stanford University, 1995–1997. Senior Consultant, Bain & Company, 1997–2001. BP Institute Research Associate at the University of Cambridge, 2002–2006. Chief Executive Officer, Breathing Buildings, 2006–present. Awarded Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal, 2011. Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, 2014. Appointed Director of the Royal Institution, 2018-2020. Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor in Sustainable Buildings, University of Cambridge 2015–present. Director Centre of Climate Repair, University of Cambridge 2020–present.
Dr Fitzgerald hopes to bring this message to his new role as head of the Ri, one of the UK’s oldest and best known scientific organisations. In the past, the RI may have been the home of some of the country’s most famous engineers, including Michael Faraday, but Dr Fitzgerald is the first engineer to hold the to post in many years. At the Ri, he is well placed to unite not just different scientific disciplines but also science and its applications. With its historic lecture theatre, and such high-profile events as the Christmas Lectures, the Ri attracts a constant flow of younger visitors. It has already announced a new five-year strategy with plans to double in size, a greater digital presence and a new science YouTube channel dedicated to children.
A part of the Ri’s new strategy is “to inspire everyone to think more deeply about science and its place in our lives”
Dr Fitzgerald is also keen to reach people beyond the usual suspects. “Our aspiration is to not only to create the scientists of tomorrow, but to encourage active citizens who have the skills and confidence to critically examine science as part of an informed discussion about its benefits to society.” A part of the Ri’s new strategy is “to inspire everyone to think more deeply about science and its place in our lives”.
This is in line with his view that science can get lost when it comes to policymaking. “There are too many examples where what was the right policy from the scientists’ point of view has not been accepted by the public. Was it because it was the wrong policy? I don’t believe that is the case at all from a scientific point of view,” he says. “This is not just about technical knowledge, it is about wisdom, which is a word that I hear used infrequently.” The way to counter this is to get the message out to a wider audience by working with the likes of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society. “This is massively important. They reach different audiences, and have got different strengths.”
One ambition that should appeal to most engineers is Dr Fitzgerald’s aim to tackle what he calls engineering’s ‘branding problem’. “I care about it massively. We are tarnished with this brush when people think that an engineer is a guy who comes and fixes your boiler or your washing machine. That’s not what an engineer does.” One way to dispel this could be to make a closer connection between science and engineering. “The fact that I am an engineer might help. I am just a different version of an applied scientist. If I can help with my Ri hat on, by actually saying look the world of science is the science and its applications. It is not that I want to blur the boundaries, I honestly don’t believe there are boundaries.”
This article has been adapted from "Building a sustainable career", which originally appeared in the print edition of Ingenia 76 (September 2018).
Michael Kenward OBE
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