School of Mathematics

Student Research Article - Ilaria Salerno

PhD Student Ilaria Salerno has written the following article as part of our series of Student Research Articles!

Do you know how much energy you use for heating/cooling your home? It's surprising to notice that only a few people know the answer (usually whoever pays the bills). The short answer is a lot. It depends on your location, type of house and many other things, of course, but we can assume 30 kWh/day/dwelling as a good approximation. Even though I am a PhD student in the School of Mathematics, I don't really like abstract numbers, so I'm used to associating them with daily-life examples. To have an idea about how much 30 kWh are, it is the energy that you will get if you eat 10 kg of caviar a day, for example. It is also the same energy eaten by 13 people per day, following a diet of more than 2000 kcal/day. Do our homes really need all that energy?

In my PhD, we are trying to make the built environment a bit smarter than what it is right now. We aim to reduce the human impact on the environment and we like thinking that this is our small contribution in that direction. In our works, we use applied mathematics and optimization techniques. We focus on buildings, since they have an impressive impact on world's energy consumption. We study two stages of buildings' lives: daily operations and the design process. Accordingly, our research aims to achieve two goals: optimizing energy demand in heating/cooling operations and finding the best design for our buildings. Furthermore, thanks to an internship within the University of Oxford, we have the opportunity to test our knowledge on real world projects.

I am an Italian, born in a small city on the sea. I left my town when I started at university and I moved to Milan first, then Montreal (Canada) and now Edinburgh: the higher the academic degree, the colder the weather became, with a global maximum in Montreal and a local maximum in Edinburgh. Maybe this is why I started studying heating systems in buildings. Concerning the optimization of daily operations, we aim to control the energy behaviour of a building, by using what we already have: the building itself. The structure of our homes acts as a sort of thermal storage and its charging cycles can be optimized to achieve any goal. Nevertheless, many other factors affect the heating demand and considering all of them is challenging. Because of this, we propose an optimization framework that represents the brain of what they call "smart buildings". We refer to it as TEMS (Thermal Energy Management System) and it aims to be an affordable solution to reduce energy consumption and gradually decarbonize our cities, by providing flexibility to the grid. The TEMS tells the user the optimal indoor temperature to keep during each hour, for achieving his purpose, such as reducing the electricity bill, consumption or gas emissions. The TEMS can work for one or more users. In fact, we can connect more houses together and make them share energy by optimal ventilation.

Controlling the building during daily operations is very effective, but we can do more. How old is your home? Our University? The counterpart of living in a place full of history and memories is that the built environment is often aged. Furthermore, the energy regulations are becoming stricter day by day. Because of that, we study buildings refurbishment: we model a framework that outputs the optimal actions to renovate a building. It is meant to be a tool for architects and engineers, since it finds the optimal values of insulation and thermal mass of the relevant elements of the building.

PhD life is not only research. There are two things that I like the most about it. The first one is that you can shape your PhD as you wish. You can integrate tutoring and teaching experiences, research network development, scientific writing and publications, personal studies and keep discovering and learning each day. Small successes will feed your PhD-daily life and little awards will recompense your hard work. The second one is the academic environment: it is a vivid, always active place, made alive by interesting minds with a passion for challenging themselves.