This article also appears in
Subscribe now »

Prof. Chris Brace, says: "The ICE will remain  a core aspect of our research even as we increase that research into electric propulsion." (Image: University of Bath).

New global R&D center focused on ULEV, advanced fuels development

A global center of excellence to develop future generations of ultra-low emissions vehicles (ULEV) is being established in the U.K. Developed by the University of Bath with U.K. government funding, the Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems (IAAPS) is scheduled to open in early 2020. Its R&D focus will be on transformational innovation for advanced propulsion systems, exploiting the university's engineering expertise.

Ford, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), McLaren AutomotiveHofer Powertrain, Horiba Group and other specialist businesses are also involved in the project, which will see a dedicated facility constructed. The IAAPS will also provide training and skills development in automotive engineering, supporting new apprenticeships, honors degrees, masters and doctoral courses.

As Deputy Director of the Powertrain & Vehicle Research Centre (PVRC) and Professor of Automotive Propulsion at the University of Bath, Chris Brace and his colleague Jamie Turner, Professor of Engines and Energy Systems, will have key roles in the new project. They discussed its aims with Automotive Engineering European Editor, Stuart Birch.

Q: Many OEMs, Tier 1 suppliers and specialist consultancies are researching and developing advanced propulsion systems. What are the main avenues that the IAAPS will explore and support, and why?

The IAAPS’s research agenda focuses on the system-level interactions between real world conditions, driver behavior and complex modern propulsion systems. Better understanding of these challenging system-level behaviors is key to achieving the clean, efficient and affordable vehicles that we need for the future.

Q: What are the particular strengths of the University of Bath’s research into advanced propulsion?

Through our PVRC, we have a longstanding reputation [over 40 years] for delivery by improving the efficiency and emissions of diesel and petrol engines, and electric and hybrid propulsion systems. Turbomachinery continues to be a core aspect of that expertise. An emerging aspect of our work is the integration of the ICE into hybrid powertrains to better manage the ICE and allow higher real world efficiencies as well as clean operation.

Q: For political reasons, many countries have committed or are likely to commit, to electrified or pure electric new vehicle production by circa 2040/50. Does that mean the IAAPS/ Bath will abandon R&D into IC engines?

Most policy statements point to the electrification of vehicles, meaning that the hybrid and plug-in hybrid will still be an essential part of the fleet for the foreseeable future. The engine and fuel will need to evolve significantly in order to achieve the CO2 and air quality targets we need to meet without sacrificing utility or affordability. The ICE will therefore remain a core aspect of our research even as we increase our research into electric propulsion systems.

For battery electric vehicles, the system level interactions and real world performance will remain critical areas of research in order to improve utility and affordability. The research we will be conducting in IAAPS will play an important role in this work.

Q: Looking at the major world markets for road transport, how can they/are likely to provide, sufficient energy to satisfy the needs of a massive and relatively rapid move away from IC engines to pure EV propulsion?

At the global level and across all energy uses, this is a huge challenge. The long-term need for aviation and heavy duty is for a sustainable source of energy-dense fuel. Success in this arena will also have a profound impact on road transport around the world. All of these needs come together in a requirement for a huge growth in the availability of renewable electricity. One interesting approach that could impact on this problem is the recent success by Harvard in the manufacture of liquid hydrocarbons directly from solar energy at laboratory scale.

Q: In your view, will batteries be replaced by alternative power sources for vehicles via energy harvesting; if so, what do you envisage as practical alternatives to batteries and can you project a possible timeline?

The intense energy needs for transport, combined with the need to make individual vehicles affordable and lightweight, are so significant that an off board collection and processing facility that results in an energy dense liquid fuel would appear to be an attractive option. 'Electrofuels' are one way to achieve this. They increase the utility of the energy storage and distribution network at the expense of efficiency, but there is a lot of research that could make these fuels a commercial reality before 2040.

New research by Oak Ridge National Lab that can synthesize ethanol from water and CO2 could be a game-changer, provided it can be scaled up economically. Also, Climeworks in Switzerland have plants currently operating commercially extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, and are only one company/research institution among many researching this. Hence, through synthesis of CO2 with hydrogen a carbon-neutral liquid fuel (CNLF) 'electrofuel' is effectively a reality now; we need to work on the energetic efficiency and the economics of it.

CNLFs offer an evolutionary path for infrastructure, as well, and they keep the vehicles affordable. There will also be the opportunity with such fuels to optimize them in a way refined crude oil cannot be.

It is also worth saying that automotive is only one part of the problem. Such carbon-neutral energy-dense fuels will be needed for aircraft and shipping, for which electrification is not an option. These sectors will likely drive the development of this approach, forcing down the prices of such fuels, and automotive will then add to the demand. Somewhat ironically, this has the potential to be truly disruptive for both electrification and the hydrogen economy, because they cannot service all of the demand across all transport modes due to their unwieldiness aboard the vehicle; obviously, CNLFs can, since they are drop-in alternatives to petroleum fuels.

As a long-term potential outcome, I see carbon-neutral fuels made in places with abundant energy like the deserts and transported economically, as we do now with petroleum fuels in vehicles, which will transition from ICE-engined PHEVs to PHEVs incorporating solid oxide fuel cells, but still operating on those fuels. This will remove combustion from the equation, improving air quality, and close both the carbon and water cycles—which may actually be very significant from a global-warming-potential viewpoint.

Continue reading »