There are those who can, those who can-do and then there is Byron Byrne – who does. The Oxford professor of engineering, who is also a former first-class cricketer, renewables innovator, doctoral supervisor and company director, brings a whole new meaning to the idea of Australian get up and go. And, with his research on offshore engineering, Professor Byrne has done a great deal to help make renewable energy become a scaled-up reality.
Google Professor Byrne, and he is described as an ‘Australian cricketer’. He is both. But that is not the day job or even the part time job. His day job is being an Oxford professor, carrying out his research, while working with his engineering students; inventing new systems to allow offshore wind to become much more efficient. It sounds quite a heavy load. But, on top of that, he leads a centre for training the doctoral engineers of tomorrow, he is a director of the Oxford Science Park, which is currently undergoing a massive new phase of construction, and he is involved with the finances and investments at his College, St Catherine’s. And, from the pictures over his head, alongside the awards, Professor Byrne is the father of a young family – and he still plays cricket for a local team.
Everything Everywhere All at Once, currently showing at cinemas, is a sci-fi comedy adventure about the so-called multiverse, where the characters live many lives in different dimensions. Professor Byrne seems already to be living that dream.
He laughs, when asked how he fits it all in, as if to say ‘Why not?’ And there is a real sense in which he does not seem to understand the question. Professor Byrne’s enthusiasm for his multiple roles is tangible, although he never imagined himself becoming an Oxford professor, or any sort of academic, believing he would be in business as a practicing engineer.
‘I am, in a way,’ he says. ‘I work with business and make things that people want.’
I was good at Maths and Physics and being a practical person, I wanted to make a difference in the real world. I thought studying engineering could achieve that, and I was absolutely right!
Professor Byron Byrne
He may not have imagined himself an academic, but Professor Byrne has won many academic prizes, plaudits and accolades for his real-world research. And, through his academic career, he has been able to make a difference. Inspired by his doctor father, perhaps, Byron was determined to do something useful – which is why he chose to study Engineering, he says.
‘I was good at Maths and Physics and being a practical person, I wanted to make a difference in the real world. I thought studying engineering could achieve that, and I was absolutely right!’
Byron Byrne grew up in Esperance, a small beach town in Western Australia, 450 miles south-east of Perth, blessed with excellent weather and sporting facilities. When not at school, he spent his childhood hitting, throwing and catching every available type of ball, excelling at sport. He also excelled academically, graduating in 1989 dux of Esperance Senior High School.
He is one of the very few people in Oxford who can claim to have lived on Vanuatu, much beloved by quiz masters
Young Byron’s early life had already been a bit of an adventure. His father trained late to become a doctor and took his family to live for three years on an island in the Pacific, making the professor one of the very few people in Oxford who can claim to have lived on Vanuatu, much beloved by quiz masters.
While living in Western Australia, the young Byron took two degrees at the same time at the University of Western Australia in Perth – one in Engineering, the other in Commerce. In his final year he was President of the University Engineers’ Club, a student club with over 1200 members. Following graduation, he travelled to England to play cricket for a summer. That was nearly 30 years ago – and, although he always imagined he would return to his homeland, he never has, for more than a few months.
While playing cricket in the Birmingham League...he decided to apply to take an Engineering doctorate at Oxford, with a view to playing cricket for the university, then against first class counties
While playing cricket in the Birmingham League in 1995, he decided to apply to take an Engineering doctorate at Oxford, with a view also to playing cricket for the university, which was then against first class counties. Submitting his application at the last minute by fax from the UK, he won an Australian Rhodes Scholarship and started the next academic year in Oxford, where he has remained ever since.
Before leaving Australia, he had already specialised in offshore engineering. It is still his major preoccupation and has won him many awards for research focused on design of structures that support offshore wind turbines. Although today, renewables are very much the zeitgeist, it was an unusual specialism in the late 90s. He explains, ‘Australia has a big coastline and a vibrant oil and gas industry so, naturally, I focused on offshore engineering … my main focus was on a novel structure for oil platforms involving a new and cheaper way of anchoring them to the ground.’
After two years of doctoral research at Oxford, with a focus on oil and gas, he became interested in the offshore potential of renewables, particularly offshore wind. This has underpinned his research activities ever since.
But he is still in Oxford, some 20 years on from completing his doctorate, with an extensive portfolio of responsibilities. While at Magdalen, Professor Byrne became a director of the college’s new Science Park, and although he moved to St Catherine’s in 2005, he remains an enthusiastic director. He says, ‘The Park is in a really exciting growth phase with an emphasis in the life sciences and technology. As a Civil Engineer I have a keen interest in the design of buildings that can accommodate high growth laboratory-based companies.’
Because of the climate emergency, there is a real need for engineers to come up with technical solutions, in terms of wind turbines, solar panels and other types of renewables...Without engineers the technology is simply not going to develop
At St Catz he has also been the Tutor for Admissions, and is currently involved with the College’s finances and investments. But his research and interests have been focused firmly on facilitating the potential of renewables – and for that, engineers are essential. He says, ‘Because of the climate emergency, there is a real need for engineers to come up with technical solutions, in terms of wind turbines, solar panels and other types of renewables, as well as the electrical distribution infrastructure. Without engineers the technology is simply not going to develop. We need to attract people with the right skills into the sector, and we need to have the right training programs.
'The Oxford general Engineering course is perfect for preparing talented people for a career in the renewables industry. But we are going to need a lot of engineers if we are to make the green energy transition at the rate needed.’
The Oxford general Engineering course is perfect for preparing talented people for a career in the renewables industry. But we are going to need a lot of engineers if we are to make the green energy transition at the rate needed
In his own field of offshore engineering, Professor Byrne says things are moving fast. The scale of the turbines is growing rapidly – along with the amount of power they can generate.
Next generation turbines will have towers more than 200 metres high and individual blades will be longer than 100m. Wind farms of 150 turbines will generate sufficient electricity to power over two million homes. According to Professor Byrne, it is simply not possible to construct such large turbines onshore because the road network limits transportation of components. It is far easier to transport and construct large structures offshore, with manufacturing and fabrication at coastal sites. And the UK has a long track record of offshore design and construction for the oil and gas industry.
Next generation turbines will have towers more than 200 metres high and individual blades will be longer than 100m. Wind farms of 150 turbines will generate sufficient electricity to power over two million homes
It is essential for these enormous towers to be held securely in place for a life of more than 30 years – which is where Professor Byrne’s engineering expertise comes in. The foundation and tower need to withstand the loading from the ocean and wind environment, as well as the constant rotation of the blades.
The forces involved are tremendous, he says. Professor Byrne talks enthusiastically about the large-scale experiments he conducts with his industry partners, Ørsted, to test the system for anchoring the turbines. They literally test them to destruction.
It is a far cry from the white coat laboratory experiments, normally associated with universities. He smiles as he says, ‘We do these really big experiments in which we try to make things fall over.’
On his screen is a photo of cranes, shipping containers and a tower bending over – like a massive Lego set, only for real. It is not cheap, but it is essential, says Professor Byrne, ‘We try to pull the foundation over to test it to the limits … we compare the results to our theories … we aim to identify the design limits. Of course, even these large experiments are scale models compared to the actual structures which are more than four times larger!’
Professor Byrne talks enthusiastically about the large-scale experiments he conducts with his industry partners, Ørsted...He smiles as he says, ‘We do these really big experiments in which we try to make things fall over
Some of the testing has taken place in Yorkshire where there are stiff clay soils, some in Kent where the geology consists of chalk, and some in dense sand at Dunkirk, all trying to replicate the geological conditions in different parts of the North Sea.
‘My research has redefined the design rules for offshore structures applied to wind power generation,’ he says.
‘There are lots of different combinations of loads and locations so optimisation using these new methods is essential to ensure cost-effectiveness. And the research has worked,’ says Professor Byrne proudly. ‘It has already been applied to Ørsted’s Hornsea wind farm, the first phase of which has been operational since 2020.’
Using new design approaches gives considerable scope, says the professor, for a lot more offshore wind farms around the World. He produces a map, showing all the places around Europe where wind farms could be sited. There are a lot of dots. [His] research is critical to the future of such sites and the ability for the industry to scale-up offshore renewables.
Not surprisingly, the research is funded by the industry, with Byrne’s Professorship funded by Ørsted and the Royal Academy of Engineering through the Academy’s Research Chairs scheme, that aims to facilitate industry-university research collaborations. In 2021, Professor Byrne was elected a Fellow of the Academy, in recognition of his research contributions to offshore wind.
Just as solutions from the Space Race found other applications, Professor Byrne’s research could be used in other forms of construction, he says.
‘The new design process that we have developed could be applied to other civil engineering problems to enable more optimised solutions. I have always been interested in doing things that make a real difference to the world, and I feel this research has achieved that.’
In popular imagination, this is not what Oxford professors do ... and yet it is. Professor Byrne says, ‘Oxford has given me complete freedom to do research I think is important; that is what I love about the place, and why I have stayed. I’ve been able to get on with my research over a sustained period of time, collaborating with colleagues and the industry, and now it is making a real contribution to scaling up offshore wind power.’
The work has pushed forward the possibilities in terms of renewable energy and, in the future, says Professor Byrne, there will be other exciting developments. There are plans for floating wind turbines in deeper water, in areas of high wind resource.
‘I’m not worried about work drying up,’ he laughs. ‘What I love about Oxford is being able to push forward new directions of research. It’s one of the few places where you have this complete freedom.'
The videos depict pile testing at Cowden in Yorkshire for the PISA Project. Further details of the project, team and industry funders can be found at https://www.icevirtuallibrary.com/toc/jgeot/70/11