Project aims to enhance electric vehicle development

Five UK universities are to jointly investigate how the UK automotive sector can improve the crucial technologies for low-carbon vehicles, such as batteries and supercapacitors.

The project, funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), aims to help manufacturers develop more efficient power systems, which could lead to better-designed and cheaper electric vehicles.

The FUTURE (Fundamental Understanding of Technologies for Ultra Reduced Emissions) project involves engineers from Imperial College London and Oxford, Coventry, Cranfield and Loughborough universities.

‘We came together last year after a call from the TSB, which wanted academics to support the emerging low-carbon vehicle industry in the UK over the next five to 10 years,’ explained Greg Offer, who is leading the Imperial team.

The universities are studying four different technologies that could be used in future electric vehicles: batteries and supercapacitors (grouped together because they share a scientific basis); fuel cells; electrical machines; and the power electronics that control the systems.

‘This is pre-competitive research, so although we have automotive and other specialist companies on our advisory panel, they aren’t dictating the direction of the research,’ Offer said.

Offer’s group at Imperial is using computer techniques to model and test batteries and supercapacitors.

‘The crucial thing is that we’re looking at this in a very applied fashion,’ he said. ‘We’re looking at the boundary between the electrochemistry, the fundamental science and how the device is used in practice. We’re particularly interested in degradation mechanisms and failure modes.’

The result of this could be batteries that are smaller and lighter than current versions, but have the same power; or batteries the same size as current ones, but which last longer.

‘It would be up to the manufacturers what they do with our results; we’re not intending to tell them what the best vehicle would be,’ Offer added.