Changes in the air

In the face of rising fuel costs, the compressors market sees innovative solutions to energy efficiency as the most important driver for change. Julia Pierce reports


The compressors market, rather than relying on innovation to drive it for new devices, instead tends to evolve new products through further refinement and development.

But the market is not standing still. Beneath its relatively conservative exterior lies a sector that is facing some very pressing issues requiring complex and innovative solutions.

‘We have identified four drivers for the market,’ said John Forman, marketing and communications manager at Atlas Copco Compressors (GB). ‘One of these is the question of the quality and purity of the air produced. You do not want lubricant to make contact with the product, especially in the food industry, for instance. It can cost millions of pounds if a product recall is needed.’

As a result, the company has created a full range of ISO Class 0 compressors, where the amount of oil in the air produced is undetectable. Not only are these ideal for the food industry, where new standards have recommended their widespread use, but they could also have applications in fields such as dentistry.

Second, Forman said there has recently been much interest from industry in improving connectivity through remote monitoring of equipment using web-based systems.

The third area is the development of plant leasing and financial packages — including the costs of services and maintenance — allowing customers to be certain of their outgoings over a set period.

But with rising fuel costs, it is energy efficiency that is cementing its position as the most important driver for change. The Carbon Trust has for years been working to help producers of compressors to develop new low-energy solutions, while providing energy use audits to users.

The organisation is well aware that even small power savings within the sector could have an important impact. Earlier this year, Sheffield University unveiled a prototype of an energy-efficient, direct-drive linear motor compressor for use in domestic refrigerators, whose two-year development was part funded by the trust. Refrigeration accounts for approximately 14 per cent of the total electricity consumption in the UK, so anything that reduces energy use would have a large impact on energy bills for both households and businesses.

As well as such sponsorship, the trust has been keen to promote the benefits of variable speed drives. ‘Industrial compressors use a lot of electricity — fuel costs account for 80 per cent of the lifetime cost of a device,’ said Forman. ‘Capital outlay and maintenance are very small in comparison.’

A system that is currently under development could revolutionise the compressors market, for a relatively low cost. Lontra’s novel design for a blade compressor — called simply the Blade Compressor — is claimed to produce a high-compression ratio through a single stage, resulting in significant efficiency gains that can produce energy savings of around 35 per cent. Again, the device’s development was helped by a grant from the Carbon Trust, a measure of how important such a development is seen to be.

A key feature is the compressor’s ability to vary flow and pressure with minimal efficiency loss, without the use of variable speed drive, which can be relatively complex and expensive.

‘The efficiency benefit is key,’ said Simon Hombersley, Lontra’s business development director. ‘Talking to people in the market, it is clear that this is the major driver in the market at the moment. Having variable drives to match demand and lower noise were previous drivers and are still important. But when you consider that most of the lifetime cost of a compressor is its energy use, it is easy to see why efficiency is so important.’

While there have been various incremental developments made to existing compressor designs, Lontra concluded that in order to make an impact on the market, a complete re-design was required. The resulting system consists of a relatively simple rotary positive displacement device using novel geometry. It is similar to a screw compressor. However, its machining costs are low, making it cheap to manufacture.

‘You can vary flow using a simple mechanical device so it is easy to match output with demand,’ said Hombersley. ‘It has very good airflow, but also a very good level of basic efficiency.’

The design is currently at the prototype stage, and Lontra is in the process of working with major compressor manufacturers to take it to market. The company has already joined forces with specialist compressor manufacturer Ultra Electronics Precision Air Systems to develop the Blade for medical markets.

The companies will develop an efficient air feed compressor for oxygen generation systems and other niche applications. The aim is to make portable oxygen generation systems cheaper, as well as increasing availability of supply by replacing oxygen tanks in mobile medical facilities.

Lontra expects that the Blade will be available for general sale within two years. ‘One thing to bear in mind is that the compressor industry is relatively conservative,’ said Hombersley. ‘So the Blade’s speed to market and success will depend on how quickly the industry adopts it. However, there is such an impetus to save energy as a way of gaining competitive advantage that this will certainly ease its way.’

The abilities of Lontra’s device seem well matched to the market’s main requirement. ‘With compressed air, the key is finding the minimum input of energy that can produce the maximum amount of air,’ explained Forman.

Given the high cost of energy and the sheer amount required to power the devices, it is clear that to gain commercial advantage, anything capable of reducing consumption is likely to prove popular to buyers.

As Hombersley put it: ‘It is all about saving hard cash — it’s as simple as that.’