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Homepage / Studying Advanced Heat Engineering as a part-time student

Studying Advanced Heat Engineering as a part-time student


My name is Peter Baxter, and I am studying for a part-time MSc in Advanced Heat Engineering. At 57, I’m probably the oldest student at the University and felt that this account of the District Heat Networks module of the Advanced Heat Engineering MSc would be of interest to others considering a similar postgraduate qualification in mid-career.

I graduated in 1987 in civil engineering and have worked in the UK construction sector ever since, specialising in ground engineering. I’m a chartered civil engineer and founded a small soils testing and ground investigation company in 1995 which is reasonably successful. I live 100 miles from Cranfield and am married, with an adult son.

I’ve had an interest in renewable energy since childhood. I wanted to adjust my career to play some part in developing renewable energy, but through self-study realised the limitations of my technical knowledge. I had considered a part-time master’s degree for some years, but lack of funding and various family and business time commitments prevented this.

Cranfield offered various relevant master’s degrees, all of which could be studied part-time, and one; Energy Systems and Thermal Processes (now Advanced Heat Engineering) appeared to provide the rigorous grounding in thermodynamics and its industrial applications that I felt I needed. Given the subject and date of my first degree, I’m grateful to have been offered a place on this course, which I’m self-funding through my company.

Time management has been my biggest challenge. I aim to complete my degree in two years and have found each module occupies about 100 hours, perhaps 70 hours during the module including self-study, and thirty hours for the module’s assignment, which is marked. Part-time students are granted extra time to complete the assignments, which is a measure of Cranfield’s understanding of the demands on working students.

The Advanced Heat Engineering MSc is organised as eight modules, which normally occupy two consecutive weeks. The year’s calendar is published in advance, so the modules can be selected by part-time students to suit their workload. I have found the Teams lectures and tutorials very useful on occasion, but advise in-person attendance whenever possible, particularly when doing software-based exercises. Staying on campus has provided a calm study atmosphere and avoided excessive travel. The on-campus accommodation and catering is excellent, and my lecturers and the University staff have been very supportive. I have found it useful to treat the course as my day job during modules, to deal with any work issues outside working hours, and definitely not respond to client communications during the day!

I personally was worried that my maths would be too rusty. I was able to cope, but plan to revise certain weak topics before next year- another benefit of a part-time degree. I was pleased that my knowledge of thermodynamics was sufficient, particularly given the quality of my fellow MSc students. There are nine of us (two part-time), of a range of ages, industries, and nationalities, and all very competent. All except me have mechanical engineering backgrounds.

I hadn’t fully appreciated the importance of software on the course. I had expected to be using specialist software for the computational fluid dynamics and heat exchanger modules, but have been using various software for other modules, including MATLAB, which is almost a computer coding language. It is very powerful and potentially very useful, but I hadn’t even heard of it until four months ago! That maybe shows my age, but I was able to use MATLAB for assignments and will be improving my knowledge of it before next year. Cranfield offers a valuable Software Week before courses start, which comprises tutorials on the use of the software encountered during the courses. I attended remotely and also had IT issues, but I will attend next year full-time in person.

The District Heat Networks module covered the design principles for district heat networks, as you might expect, but also included passive heating and cooling, heat pumps, heat storage, solar heating, and hydrogen storage. The heating and cooling of buildings account for 30% to 40% of global energy consumption, underlining the reason for this module.  (After writing this blog, I suggest the module’s name could be changed to something like “Building Heating and Cooling” to fully reflect its subject matter).

For each topic of the module, design principles and software were taught and practised with individual and group tasks. The module was assessed with a 3000-word assignment. My assignment was an analysis of a vapour compression heat pump using Refprop software to define the refrigerant states, and a MATLAB routine to calculate and present performance parameters under different operating conditions. Individual and group tasks during the module included the design of a solar heating system and summarising a UK Government paper on international district heat network practice. Throughout the module, the global energy needs for cooling were enumerated and emphasised, which I hadn’t fully appreciated from my parochial UK perspective. Other takeaways for me were that current UK building regulations can enable heating to be off for ten months a year and that a pressurised tank of 100kg of hydrogen could heat a standard UK house for two months.

I found this the most interesting of the modules I have studied so far because I consider renewable heating and cooling to be critical in combating climate change and ensuring energy security, and because of my civils/ building career background. I found the module very information-dense, with each of the topics mentioned above necessarily covered in brief. This module opened doors on each topic for a glance inside but left exploration of the rooms for further study. I hope to follow up on some of the topics covered in the District Heat Networks module in my future individual project and thesis, and in my future career.

More generally, I have very much enjoyed my first half-year at Cranfield despite the workload and the gaps in my knowledge. The Advanced Heat Engineering MSc teaches and revises thermodynamic and heat transfer principles and demonstrates the application of these principles with a good level of exercise and revision. The course also covers the economic and social impacts of engineering, which I have always found interesting and which is valuable for graduates of the course. I can recommend it to others with my interests and background, and only regret not starting ten years ago.

Peter Baxer

Written By: Wayne Coulter

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