Dr Kirwan says he never fancied going to university, until he discovered Warwick. He arrived from Kent when he was 18 and is now a senior research fellow based at WMG’s International Automotive Research Centre.
Dr Kirwan completed a four-year Masters in Mechanical Engineering before embarking on an Engineering Doctorate, which he completed in 2002. The doctorate focused on polymer glazing – or the use of plastic windows in cars – and formed the basis for further, current work in this field. But Dr Kirwan is now concentrating on further research, in which he is investigating the use of environmentally-friendly, or sustainable, materials in the automotive industry in a bid to create a low carbon car.
Dr Kirwan sits on numerous committees, including the Warwick Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre (WIMRC) management committee and is a referee for proposals for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
Sustainable Materials Programme
Dr Kirwan wants to apply a “farmers’ market” approach to technology. His team has just won a £1 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to develop a Sustainable Materials Programme on a global scale. The idea is to use locally-produced materials, such as agricultural crops, industrial waste and substances such as supermarket vegetable oils as the basis for fuels, composites and plastics, with the main emphasis on applications within the automotive industry.
He says: "For instance, we currently import palm oil from the rainforests of Borneo to make biodiesel to run our cars in Europe. Using European crops such as rapeseed oil would be greener and cheaper – similarly, African countries would benefit from using cashew nut shell liquid – a local agricultural waste – to produce building materials for houses and vehicles."
The centrepiece of the research is a car which Dr Kirwan and his team are building for demonstration at the Sexy Green Car Show to be staged at the Eden Project in Cornwall next April. The racing car will use chip oil from the university’s catering department, starch-based tyres and have a bioplastic body shell based on vegetable oil and reinforced with hemp and flax.
Dr Kirwan is hoping to capitalise on a shift in public awareness of green transport. “We are doing a lot of work on the educational side, as the biggest killer of green technology is consumer apathy.
“We are trying to get away from developing technology for technology’s sake – there has to be a practical use and demand.”
Colleagues from the university’s chemistry, microbiology and Horticulture Research International departments are on board and the programme has partners in Malaysia, Africa, New Zealand and several European countries.
One research project with Motorola has seen sunflowers emerging from the discarded casings of mobile phones. The team developed a biodegradable casing in which a sunflower seed was embedded along with some feed. The idea is that when the phone is ready to be discarded, the casing is planted in the ground, and the seed released to grow. The hope is that the user will also be spurred to dispose of the rest of the phone in a proper recycling bin.
With more than 100 million phones thrown away in Europe alone every year the idea, first broadcast two years ago, was bound to appeal. The university became the centre of worldwide media interest when a trial 50 phones were developed. The challenge now is to look at how the idea can be translated into a mass-market product.
Cars with plastic windows could become increasingly popular thanks to research by Dr Kirwan. Work carried out for his Engineering Doctorate, and which is continuing, focused on the replacement of glass with transparent plastic. Benefits include weight reduction, increased styling potential because plastic is more malleable, security against break-ins, increased safety for drivers and passengers and better recycling opportunities.
A number of companies are involved in the research with three patents for different aspects of the work now granted. One success is the development of polymer glazing that can be broken from the inside but not from the outside.
Dr Kerry Kirwan