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Sustainable futures

COP26: world-leading power electronics centre at forefront of zero carbon aviation

We have a proud history of manufacturing and power electronics research at our university, and an international reputation for innovation.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in it since 1993, during which time we’ve been behind many industry firsts, but the creation of our new Power Electronics and Machines Centre is truly game-changing when it comes to the future of transportation electrification, including the aviation and automotive sectors.

Our 20 megawatt UK Electrification of Aerospace Propulsion Facility (UKEAPF), which sits within it, is world-leading, with nowhere else able to do what we can here. This 20MW capacity allows us to test electrical propulsion systems powerful enough for regional and medium-haul aircraft. No other research institute in the world can offer this to the emerging electric transport propulsion industry.

Whereas industry is tending to use its test beds to look at the problems of today, we’re using ours to look 10 years or more into the future. We work closely with industry to understand their needs but what we’re trying to do is solve the problems they don’t know they’ve got yet.

The £40m facility is part-funded by the Government’s Getting Building fund, the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund and matched from worth £20 our UK industry partners. It sees our researchers working with our partners to test revolutionary aircraft propulsion systems, this investment provides a step-change in the capacity available to test electric motors and generators at the scale needed to reach the industry’s ambitious decarbonisation targets.

The main focus of our aviation research within the Power Electronics, Machines and Control Research Group is creating the motor drive technologies and systems which will enable flights to be powered electronically. For example we are currently designing a propulsion system for the airship Airlander, which is set to be the world’s biggest passenger aircraft, but are also working with numerous other manufacturers.

There are challenges to overcome to reach the goal of zero emissions by 2050, but I’m confident, with leadership and support from government and industry, it can be done. There’s a road map for net zero aviation, and if you plot the power levels and the power densities of what we're achieving for more and all-electric aircraft, we're ahead of this with demonstrators already built and tested in out laboratory at power levels of 4MW.

The key challenges are to make things small enough and light enough, whilst maintaining reliability. There have been massive advances in power electronic technology, especially in the materials used. The move from silicon to silicon carbide, which enables wide bandgap semiconductors, has revolutionised how electrical machines are driven. We can create a motor that couldn't even be conceived just a couple of years ago. What we're spending a lot of time and effort working out is how to package these new power devices safely when they’re operating at faster and at higher temperatures.

We are also looking at the manufacturability of these electrical drivetrains - we have great ideas and plans which will take advantage of the advances in conventional and additive manufacturing.

Integration is key. You can think of all the components within an electrical drivetrain as separate boxes – the motor, the propeller etc. – and connect them together and they’ll work. Or you can design them all together in the first place and reduce the size even further using the benefits of integration. By integrating the control electronics and the power supply inside the motor, we can continue to make significant reductions in the size and weight of propulsion systems.

To make this all of this happen you’ve got to have a team that has a fundamental understanding of thermal design, electro-mechanical design, power electronics and packaging. And you have to be able to make this thing and manufacture it.

That's what we're trying to do and we’re well placed. Ours is probably the largest power electrical machines research group in the world, comprising 19 academic staff, around 65 Research Fellows and around 75 PhD Students.

We’re part of the Institute for Aerospace Technology and we’ve also got great connections to manufacturing and materials engineering in the Advanced Manufacturing Building. Working alongside colleagues from the Advanced Manufacturing Centre is essential for these integrated electrical propulsion systems. We are world-leaders in 3-D printing and our ability to work with new materials and create components that are fully integrated from the beginning is a game changer.

"We can create a motor that couldn't even be conceived a couple ago."
Pat Wheeler

Investment in the sheer space needed for this type of research is also key. Big facilities are essential for credibility in the aircraft propulsion game. In order to build a system for a large aircraft, you've got to build a large bit of kit and you've got to test it and demonstrate it.

What we have is world-leading and will be responsible for key components of the aircraft of the future, but I also rather like the fact that some parts of the test beds are now over 50 years old. We’ve got some large bits of steel second-hand from British Coal, which we use to bolt things down to when testing them. It just proves that not everything has to be new and exemplifies the way we are building on the foundations of our rich research history.

"What we’re trying to do is solve the problems [that industry] don’t know they’ve got yet."
Pat Wheeler
Airlander taking off

Airlander

Researchers from the university are part of a partnership to create a new hybrid passenger airship.

Working alongside Hybrid Air Vehicles Limited and Collins Aerospace Systems, the team are looking at integrating electric propulsion into the Airlander 10 aircraft, with the goal of developing an all-electric airship by 2030.

Currently the prototype ship is powered by four 350-horsepower V8 diesel engines, but the team are working towards developing a 500kW electric propulsor.

The vehicle will be the world’s largest passenger aircraft by mass – weighing more than 44,000 pounds.

Pat Wheeler

Pat Wheeler is Head of Power Electronics, Machines and Control Research Group, Global Director of the University’s Institute of Aerospace Technology and Professor of Power Electronic Systems, Faculty of Engineering

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