An old dog learning new tricks

John Roles is a University of Queensland PhD candidate using his life’s experience in the power industry to tackle the future of energy.

More than 30 years after receiving his undergraduate degree in engineering, John returned to UQ’s IMB to complete a doctorate in the energy economics of renewable fuels after identifying something lacking in the industry.

“I’d made my way up to a fairly senior level in organisations; I had a couple of hundred people working for me,” he said.

A downturn in the industry, a redundancy and a stint as a consultant convinced him something had to change.

“There’s been a lot of emphasis on the decarbonising of electricity production, but the remainder of the world’s energy systems have not yet been addressed,” he said.

He said he realised the only way to continue reductions in carbon emissions was to develop cost effective renewable fuels.

“The development of renewable fuels presents an even greater challenge than the conversion of our electricity systems, so that became the focus of my research.

“The research group I joined at IMB was investigating the conversion of algae to renewable fuels - a challenging task.

“Governments and industry are only just starting to recognise that the development of renewable fuels is the next step after renewable electricity.

“Scientists often talk up the potential of new technologies but if they don’t work economically, then they’re never going to get off the ground.

“You have to look at the economics behind each opportunity before you say, that’s one we should pursue.

“Most of my research has involved setting up a methodology for evaluation of energy technologies.”

John said he had thrived working with a team of young researchers who are at the beginning of their careers.

“It’s different from working in a commercial environment , not so much pressure, but at the same time very invigorating in terms of the diversity of the young people surrounding me, all doing their PhDs, and that energy is really contagious,” he said.

The soon-to-be Dr Roles also gained inspiration from the St Lucia campus.

“What a fantastic environment the campus here provides and what a delight it is to work here,” he said.

“This research, hopefully, will lead to an environmentally friendly, sustainable future.

“It gives you a good feeling that you’re actually giving something back to society.

“I mean, I could have taken the easy path and just pursued more work in the same industry doing the same old things, but where’s the challenge in that?”

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