Driving your car into the future

THE engines, motors and fuels of the future are being developed and tested at a new research centre at the Bristol & Bath Science Park. The Voice found out what’s happening at IAAPS.

FROM the outside there’s not much to see.

Aside from the sign spelling out its name, IAAPS is an anonymous-looking building, all grey panels and glass.

But what’s going on inside could change the way the car you drive in ten years’ time is powered, along with future generations of lorries, tractors, ships and even aircraft.

Engineers at the research and innovation centre in Emersons Green work with private companies and university researchers to turn new ideas and concepts into tested, working systems that can be made production-ready by a manufacturer.

On the day the Voice visited the £70 million facility, a new tractor engine was being put through its paces.

The hybrid diesel engine powertrain was sitting on a rig connected to a dynamometer, a piece of highly sensitive equipment that can record and analyse up to 5,000 channels of data from components, measuring variables including power, energy, torque, speed and temperature. It also replicates the voltage and current of a battery going into the powertrain.

Wires linked to controls and gauges that would be found on the dashboard of a working vehicle are spread across the testing cell, like a real-life exploded diagram.

Engineering director Professor Rob Oliver said the system on test started as a concept about three years ago, and is another three to four years from being ready to go into production in a vehicle.

Projects for the aerospace sector could be ten or more years from production.

Rob said: “We’re an incubator, where one or two people with a good idea can get help to prove it is useful and can be put into production.

“The real core of what we do is measuring an awful lot of data very completely and repeatedly in controlled conditions.”

Robot drivers can be placed at the controls and replicate different driving styles, from aggressive to laid-back, while engineers measure how they affect performance.

Emissions testing devices sample exhaust gases before they are safely removed using a system which also captures heat – up to 90% of power used in the building is recovered and used again.

In another of the centre’s 18 testing ‘cells’ was a hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engine big enough to power a truck; a third contained a smaller electric motor driven by hydrogen fuel cells.

All the hydrogen is made on site: 10kg per hour is produced by electrolysis, using electricity to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen.

As well as being used in testing, the hydrogen powers two of the centre’s three heating boilers.

The oxygen is currently vented, as there is no economically viable way to recover it.

The centre has a 400KW solar panel array producing electricity to offset the “green mains supply” used to carry out electrolysis, as the panels can’t provide a consistent current in all weathers.

IAAPS projects can benefit today’s vehicles: when the Voice visited, a three-year-old Transit van was ready to test a new type of engine oil aimed at improving efficiency, fuel consumption and emissions in current diesel engines.

The ability to work across different alternative forms of propulsion – described by Rob as being “tech-agnostic” – means the centre embraces battery systems, fuel cells and alternative fuels such as methanol, as long as they bring transport closer to the goal of producing ‘net zero’ carbon dioxide emissions.

IAAPS, which held its official opening ceremony last September, is a wholly-owned subsidiary company of Bath University.

As well as the testing cells it has workshops and machining rooms, meeting rooms and a large ‘collaboration space’ where people from its “partner organisations”, from think tanks and start-ups to large corporate clients, can plug in laptops and work or discuss ideas.

IAAPS stands for Institute of Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems, but the centre no longer spells out the acronym, as its focus is now “beyond automotive”.

Executive director Professor Chris Brace said: “The strength of this place is its open, collaborative nature.

“We can be the interface between a large and a small company to integrate new technology into vehicles and give them access to state-of-the-art facilities and people that can make it work.

“You can go from an idea to being on the verge of manufacturing, all under one roof.”

At the moment around 40 people work at IAAPS but this is expected to reach 120 permanent employees within five years, with up to 120 more university researchers and partner companies on site at any time.

Off-site work on projects developed at IAAPS is expected to make the eventual number of jobs supported around 1,900.

Electric cars are increasingly common on our roads but current limitations on power and range mean that hydrogen is seen as more practical in areas such as road haulage.

Chris and Rob say it’s difficult to predict where the crossover between the two will be and whether battery or hydrogen-engined cars will eventually dominate but, with IAAPS working in both areas, Chris says: “Either way, we’re happy.”

Rob says that, after 80 to 90 years of mainly focusing on making petrol and diesel engines more efficient, propulsion research and development has now opened to technologies that weren’t around five years ago.

He says: “It’s a really exciting time to be working in this field.”