Air compressor could help industry slash energy costs

A UK clean-tech start-up claims to have developed a solution for reducing the average 10 per cent of total electricity European industries spend on air compression.

Lontra, based in the Midlands, has unveiled details about the design of its patented air compressor technology for the first time publicly since the company formed in 2004. 

Their technology known as the Blade Compressor moves and looks different to other compressors on the market notably because its piston, instead of moving down and up in a chamber, whirls around a like a gondola on a high-speed Ferris wheel.

As the piston–which in this case is a blade–completes each rotation it slides through the slit of a disc–another important part of the Lontra compressor– which continuously spins in the middle of the drum.

Simon Hombersley, business development director for Lontra, explained that as the piston rotates it induces a volume of air behind it in the same way a traditional piston will induce air as it drops down into a cylinder. When the piston blade slides through the slit of the disc, the volume of air trapped behind it pushes to the front, he said.

This means the piston effectively induces air at the same time it compresses it, he added.

Hombersley said, ‘It’s just like a piston compressor which sucks air in, closes a valve and pushes the air back up to increase the pressure. What’s different here is there is no change in direction. It is completely rotary.’

If the Blade Compressor were used in place of traditional industrial air compressors, Hombersley claimed companies could expect to see a 20 per cent increase in efficiency.

This could make a huge difference as a European Commission supported report in 2000 indicated that compressed air accounts for as much as 10 per cent of industrial electricity consumption, which is more than 80 TWh per year in the European Union.

While Lontra’s technology has made headlines over the last few years because of its financial backing from the UK’s Carbon Trust, the company has been reluctant to divulge any information on the mechanical components of its device until now.

Hombersley said this is because Lontra is beginning to enter a series of high-profile demonstration projects such as its recently announced collaboration with automotive consultancy Ricardo and the Ford Motor Company.

The UK Technology Strategy Board sponsored effort will see Lontra demonstrate its Blade Supercharger, which uses the core design of the Blade Compressor. The supercharger will boost air into the downsized engine of a Ford demonstrator vehicle that will be built and revealed by the beginning of next year. 

Hombersley said integrating the supercharger with the engine should be a fairly straightforward process.

‘At the moment we haven’t built it yet, but we’re envisaging a relatively straightforward belt drive from the existing engine with an ECU controlling the variable port and that boosting straight into the engine in the way a normal supercharger would,’ he said. 

Hombersley said the goal will be to demonstrate that a vehicle can use a downsized engine and save fuel economy yet still get the boost levels that allow the engine to perform driveability.

‘This isn’t blue sky thinking,’ he said. ‘This is a practical application that will be in vehicles within a few years rather than tens of years.’

In addition to the industrial compressed air market and automotive industry, Lontra is also marketing its technology for sewage sludge treatment. According to company figures, one per cent of electricity usage in Europe is consumed by treatment plants blowing air through sewage to purify it.