Technology developed by ACES award winner EVO Electric is poised to overcome two of the main barriers that stand in the way of the large-scale adoption of electric cars, by boosting their performance at the same time as increasing their range. The technology will also make hybrid electric/petrol cars cheaper to manufacture and reduce the amount of CO2 they produce.
The significance of this breakthrough was highlighted earlier this month when the luxury car makers Lotus and Infiniti both exhibited hybrid vehicles incorporating EVO Electric’s electric drives at the Geneva Motor Show.
The innovation rests on the research into axial flux motors carried out at Imperial College London by Michael Lampérth, who received the ACES award in the materials and engineering category at the awards ceremony in Brussels last month.
Lampérth had an idea of the extent to which his research could change the shape of electric-drive motors, but as a researcher his first thought was not to set up a business. However, when his industrial partners suggested he should patent his axial flux technology, Lampérth started to think about the best strategy for commercialisation.
While he was looking into the options, Lampérth realised that there was more to the technology than patents, important as they are. “Patents are one thing,” he explains, “Knowhow and manufacturing skills are also important.” With support and backing from Imperial Innovations, the technology transfer and commercialisation arm of Imperial College, Lampérth co-founded EVO Electric and now acts as the company’s Chief Technology Officer.
The attraction of axial flux technology is that it allows the design of electric motors that are much smaller and lighter than conventional motors, whilst the same time delivering higher torque and power densities. This makes it possible to pack more power into the weight, reducing a vehicle’s energy consumption. It also lowers the cost of materials.
Although the potential advantages of axial flux were generally acknowledged and understood by engineers, complex design and manufacturing problems held back the technology until Lampérth and his group at Imperial College tackled the challenge.
Back to business
Lampérth had worked in industry before coming to London from Switzerland to work on a Master’s degree, and then a PhD, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, at Imperial College. A trip that was supposed to keep him in the UK for a year, ended up as a 16-year stay.
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Lampérth wasn’t reluctant to return to business, saying, “I thought it would be interesting to be back in industry again” But after years as an academic and researcher, he needed help in developing the commercial side of the business, and this is where the expertise at Imperial College proved invaluable.
Assessing the options
Imperial Innovations offered advice and space in its business incubator, as well finding a CEO, while the university’s business school put an MBA student on the case, to look at the new company’s options. “That was really helpful,” says Lampérth.
The business input showed that rather than outlicensing the patents at an early stage, the best option was to develop the axial flux technology and add more value, says Lampérth. EVO Electric started up in 2006, but it wasn't until a year later, when a group of business angels expressed an interest in investing, that the company could start to motor. “That really accelerated the beginning,” Lampérth says.
One early move was out of the Imperial incubator, which is mostly home to biotech businesses “We were too noisy,” Lampérth observes. He spotted a vacant building in Woking, Surrey, on his train commute into London. This is a standard industrial unit where a team of around 20 people is now working on the next generation of axial flux machines.
The road ahead
Lampérth takes a realistic view about the business model for EVO Electric, acknowledging that it is hard for a small business to break into the automotive market. “We needed to form a partnership,” he says. It achieved this is 2011, setting up a joint venture with the leading automotive components supplier GKN plc. The joint venture, GKN EVO eDrive Systems will develop, manufacture and sell axial flux electric motors and drive systems for use in hybrid and electric vehicles. “We have a route to production with GKN,” says Lampérth.
As part of the agreement, GKN acquired a 25.1 per cent stake in EVO Electric and is providing financing in a combination of debt and equity, together with engineering and commercial resources, to support the development of the joint venture. The total value of GKN’s investment is £5 million.
EVO Electric hopes to sign similar deals with other companies for non-automotive applications and is already producing bespoke designs for other customers. The company is also working on machines for use in wind power systems and other industrial applications.