Midlands unis in £20m tie-up to deliver cold power tech

Posted on 11 May 2016 by Jonny Williamson

A group of six Midlands universities are developing the next generation of ‘cold power’ technologies to help save millions of pounds in carbon fuels every year.

The collective has already made advancements in delivering liquid nitrogen engines aimed for the world’s food and medical transporters, and is now looking at ways where this solution can be used to replace inefficient air conditioning units.

Other research projects will involve examining the use of novel materials and methods for storage, efficient insulation materials and methods and developing advanced materials and manufacturing processes.

Backed by £20m funding from the Government’s Thermal Energy Research Accelerator (T-ERA), the group includes:

  • Aston University
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Leicester
  • Loughborough University
  • University of Nottingham
  • University of Warwick
  • British Geological Survey

The University of Birmingham’s Professor Martin Freer explained: “Heating and cooling in our buildings, infrastructure and transport accounts for more than half of our total energy consumption, and is set to grow dramatically over the next 15 years.

“In order to meet our climate and energy goals, we must sharply reduce the energy we consume for thermal loads and specifically move away from the use of fossil fuels.”

He continued: “The key now is to engage UK industry as customers and collaborators to drive innovation in cold energy and T-ERA will be fundamental in doing this as part of the ERA collaboration.”

One of the earliest success stories is Dearman, a technology business that has developed an innovative piston engine that utilises the rapid expansion of liquid air/nitrogen to deliver zero-emission power and cooling.

The company is now working with the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) to use a method called ‘Factory in a Box’ to deploy mini-factories that will help rapidly scale-up the manufacture of its cryogenic liquid air engines internationally.

The MTC's 'Factory in a Box' concept can deploy mobile factories across the world, but managed in the UK where the value is held
The MTC’s ‘Factory in a Box’ concept can deploy mobile factories across the world, but managed in the UK where the value is held.

The mobile factories – which can be shipped in a container – will use next generation technology, such as smart sensors, super-fast broadband and big data, to measure and control production processes remotely.

T-ERA and the MTC believe this will reduce the significant expense of setting up stand-alone production facilities, while also giving UK companies the opportunity to establish manufacturing footprints in new markets relatively quickly.

Neil Rawlinson, strategic development director at the MTC – part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult – said: “Many companies need specific production capabilities near to where they make big assemblies, but often ship them in at great expense.

“We have designed a method for deploying capacity in other countries very quickly, but managed remotely from the UK and capturing the added value and knowledge of our manufacturers. This know-how would be a British export and deliver new jobs.”

Professor Martin Freer, University of Birmingham
Professor Martin Freer, University of Birmingham.

He added: “Factory in a Box could also be the answer to increasing the UK’s ability to commercialise the R&D it has developed, offering greater speed to market and flexible production opportunities.”

Chief executive of Dearman Toby Peters added: “The days of establishing mega factories that churn out vast amounts of low value, volume product are rapidly coming to an end.

“Getting innovative, responsive new technologies into international markets quickly relies upon a new model for manufacturing, which can be established here in the UK, allowing us to export not just technology but also manufacturing know-how.”

Peters concluded: “At Dearman, we see this as a way to produce a game changing technology, at the right price, that can be tailored to local demands, while establishing international presence in fast growing economies.”