Magnetic attraction: towards a low carbon future with Rolls-Royce, Siemens and Nissan
From the generation of offshore wind power, to the development of ultra-efficient electric cars, our researchers are charting a course towards a low carbon future for Britain and the wider world.
For more than three decades the University has led the world in the development of one of the critical elements of this low carbon economy – the permanent magnet brushless machine – which is one of the key reasons why companies as diverse as Rolls-Royce, Siemens and Nissan have been beating a path to our door.
"We have been leading research in this field since Professor David Howe, FREng, first established a team here more than 30 years ago," says Professor Zi-Qiang Zhu, who heads the world renowned Electrical Machines and Drives Group.
"Our research skills cover all facets of permanent magnet brushless machines and control systems, from power electronics and electromagnetic devices, through to electrical and control systems. We are especially strong in developing their applications in the automotive, wind power and aerospace sectors."
Collaboration with Rolls-Royce, for instance, resulted in the establishment of The Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre in Advanced Electrical Machines and Drives in 2003. Here a team of researchers, under the guiding hand of Professor Geraint Jewell, work closely with Rolls-Royce to develop the next generation of electrical systems for aircraft and ships.
"Our research activity in this sector encompasses novel electrical machines, power converters and power semiconductor devices, with a particular focus on electrical components for civil and defence aerospace gas-turbines," said Professor Zhu.
One of the many challenges the researchers face is how to develop generator technologies that can withstand the extreme environments encountered in aerospace engines. "Existing electrical machine technologies cannot cope with such challenges," he says. "So that means we are starting with a clean sheet, looking at something completely new including exotic materials."
Some of this longer-term research will not see widespread entry into service for several decades "long after we have retired," Professor Zhu says with a chuckle. By contrast, his group's relationship with global energy company Siemens is developing technologies that are going almost immediately in to production.
In 2010 the wind power specialist established the Sheffield Siemens Wind Power Research Centre – the first of its kind in the country – based in the University's Kroto Innovation Centre.
"We are working very closely with Siemens to develop the most reliable, innovative and efficient onshore and offshore wind turbine generator systems for the global market," says Professor Zhu. The University is now officially recognised as one of Siemens' principal partners and with plans to grow further, it is clear that the centre is proving a hugely successful collaboration.
Indeed, Christoph Ehlers, Managing Director for Siemens Wind Power in the UK said that: "Partnerships like this are essential to maintain our leading position in producing more efficient and reliable wind turbine technologies. Our constant dialogue with the University's experts will translate into real world solutions with benefits to both the wind industry and the environment."
Dr Arwyn Thomas, initially a Development Engineer and now a Team Leader with Siemens Wind Power, said: "Being a Siemens employee I have direct contact with the company's development centre in Denmark and being based at the University gives me direct contact with Professor Zhu. So I am a bridge between both needs. Siemens are gaining benefit by being affiliated with the University which gives them a technical advantage over their competitors."
A similarly close relationship exists with motor manufacturer Nissan, though currently on a much smaller scale. "We have established an excellent working relationship with Nissan on cutting edge developments in electric vehicle technologies," says Professor Zhu.
As a result two Nissan engineers have been embedded into the group to allow close collaboration between Nissan and the University on various Electric Vehicles (EV) and Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV) technologies. The synergy allows Nissan to utilise the technological expertise within the group whilst giving the University valuable exposure to the requirements and processes of the highly competitive global automotive market.