Midlands universities to deliver cold power technologies

£20 million tie-up aims to increase use of green technology.

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

Backed by £20 million funding from the government’s Thermal Energy Research Accelerator, the collective has already made advancements in delivering liquid nitrogen engines aimed for the world’s food and medical transporters and are now looking at ways where this solution can 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.

“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,” explained Professor Martin Freer from the University of Birmingham.

“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 involving Aston University, University of Birmingham, University of Leicester, Loughborough University, the University of Nottingham, the University of Warwick and British Geological Survey.”

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 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 mobile factories – which can be shipped in a container – will use next generation Industry 4.0 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.

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

“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.”

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.”

Toby Peters, Chief Executive of Dearman, added his support: “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.”

He 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.”

For further information, visit www.era.ac.uk