Many an inspired idea has fallen by the wayside because the originator failed to get the finance to turn the dream into a marketable product. But a National Lottery funded award scheme offers help.
Life is hard for inventors and innovators. They have an inspired idea, but can’t get the funding to get it off the ground. Banks and venture capitalists shy away from what they see as a risk. And just discussing the idea means putting it in the public domain so that it becomes impossible to patent.
But help is at hand. This week, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) announced its latest invention and innovation award winners. They include 15 potential new products, six engineering innovations and six in the field of pure science. Each will receive up to £100,000 to develop ideas ranging from a new design for windmills to a system for monitoring the safety of offshore structures.
Nesta is an independent public body established by the government in 1998 to support talent, innovation and creativity, and this is its third round of awards. It was endowed with £200m of lottery funds, which provides an annual budget of around £10m a year. Apart from the innovation and invention programme, it also awards fellowships to up-and-coming people of exceptional brilliance, and supports education programmes.
The award process is far from a lottery, though anyone can apply. Ideas can be at any stage, from concept to nearing production. ‘The common theme is that the inventor needs help to bridge a transition stage — even if it’s close to market it could still be considered risky,’ says Clare Lovett, one of five Nesta programme managers.
Initial applications are made via Nesta’s secure website and are assessed by a programme manager and an external consultant, who recommend whether or not applicants should go on to the next stage.
If the application proceeds an external assessor is found to recommend whether Nesta should make an award. Applicants suggest how much cash they need. Once an award is made a project champion with specialist skills is appointed to advise the inventor.
Here we profile some of the most interesting technology-related ideas that succeeded in the current round. If they succede commercially, it could be lottery money well spent.
Name: Alan Rogan From: BuckinghamshireOccupation: Retired company ownerBackground: Self-taughtInnovation: New design for wind generatorNesta award: £68,700
Alan Rogan has been fascinated by windmills since the age of 12, when he saw an electricity-generating mill which had been built on the roof of a house in Farnham, near his home. He describes himself as a ‘self-taught’ engineer who gained his knowledge over 25 years as owner-manager of a plastics moulding company and through racing motorbikes and cars as a hobby. But his pet project had to wait until he retired five years ago.
Rogan set out to improve on the standard wind generator design used in wind farms worldwide. The problems, he argues, are that 40–50 tonnes of generator has to be installed at the top of a pylon, so they are expensive to build and maintain. Air pressure effects as the windmill blade passes the pylon cause vibration and have been known to cause blades to break off.
‘I always thought using a vertical axis like an anemometer was a better way to do it,’ says Rogan.
He believes that his design will be able to operate in winds that are too strong for conventional windmills. The generators will be on or under the ground where they can be insulated to reduce noise and be easy to maintain. No mechanism is needed to keep its blades turned into the wind, though a computer controlled system will adjust the pitch of the vanes to keep a constant rotational speed under varying wind conditions. Perhaps most importantly, Rogan believes his design will cost only half as much to build as a conventional design. The vanes can be made of aluminium, sheet steel or wood — and because no complicated shapes are required it could be built easily in developing countries.
Nesta awarded him £68,700 to build and test a 7.5m high prototype. He has rented a factory unit where he plans to fabricate the mill. Oxford University will then provide the expertise for an extensive monitoring programme. ‘We hope to have it working by September or October this year,’ Rogan says.
Name: Alan DeanFrom: TeessideOccupation: ConsultantBackground: Chemical engineerInnovation: Improved engine efficiency Nesta award: £48,000
Alan Dean is a chemical engineer who worked in a range of industries before setting up his own consultancy in 1974. While working for ICI in Australia, he gained experience in ‘getting new products from R&D to market’. He was also part of a team competing in the Mobil Economy Run, which set him thinking about vehicle fuel efficiency.
His Nesta-backed invention — called phase controlled combustion — is all about making combustion more efficient.
‘A problem with turbines and piston engines is that they burn liquid fuels,’ he says. It is difficult to get the fuel to vaporise completely; residual droplets of fuel fail to burn and cause particulate pollution. Dean’s system ensures the fuel is completely vaporised. It is then burnt in a precisely controlled way as it is injected into the cylinder. More work is extracted from the fuel, and pinking and pre-ignition are eliminated, so that higher compression ratios can be used, improving engine efficiency.
The system works by preheating the fuel to vaporise it before it enters the combustion chamber. This also causes the fuel to break down into simpler, more easily burnt hydrocarbons.
The fuel is injected into a ceramic pre-combustion chamber. Here, it is partly oxidised. Accurate metering allows the ratio of oxygen to fuel to be kept low so that carbon monoxide is formed. The speed of combustion and the lack of oxygen prevents the formation of nitrogen oxides. The carbon monoxide is then burnt to carbon dioxide in the main combustion chamber.
The expected result will be elimination of pollutants — without a catalyst. Greater efficiency means less carbon dioxide will be produced. ‘We’re looking for a 10–15% boost in fuel economy and 20% more torque,’ says Dean.
Another big advantage of the pre-heating process is that it won’t matter whether you fill your car with petrol, diesel or even vegetable oil. ‘All mineral or vegetable oils are made up of C16 to C25 chains and break down ultimately into CH2 groups,’ says Dean.
Nesta has awarded the project £48,000 over a year to pay for patenting costs and for Dean to work with a team at Teesside University to produce two demonstrators, a piston engine and a gas turbine.
Name: Neil Bevan From: WarwickshireOccupation: ConsultantBackground: Mechanical engineerInnovation: New gas turbine bleed valveNesta award: £53,000
Mechanical engineer Neil Bevan worked for Lucas Advanced Engineering for 15 years before setting up his own project management and product development company, Bevan Engineering, three years ago.
Bevan hopes to develop a new type of compressor bleed valve to improve the efficiency of gas turbine engines. When a turbine is running at maximum power the volume of air passing through the engine can cause the compressor to stall. Bleed valves allow excess air to escape while keeping the compressor running at maximum efficiency.
A typical gas turbine will have six or seven bleed valves. They are traditionally operated pneumatically. However, for the vast bulk of operational time the valves are not needed, and during this time the compressed air to operate them is itself bled off, wasting energy. And if a valve fails, it cannot be detected unless it is stripped down.
Bevan came up with the idea of electrical actuation following a period as a contract engineer with Rolls-Royce. Electrically powered valves would eliminate the wasted energy and could reduce down time for servicing and maintenance. The problem is making such a valve reliable on the core of a gas turbine, an environment of intense heat and vibration.
Bevan realised that technology he had worked on in the automotive field could be applied to the problem. He says: ‘I’m the inventor of a Lucas patent on a valve for diesel engine applications. This also had to be reliable in a hot environment with high vibrations.’ The bleed valve, he says, ‘is the next stage on’.
He believes that saving the energy wasted by pneumatic actuation would allow a jumbo jet to carry one or two extra passengers. Nesta funding of £53,000 over a year will allow him to employ subcontractors to build and test a prototype.
Name: Michael Brisland From: YorkshireOccupation: Company ownerBackground: Mechanical engineerInnovation: Water hydraulics for factory automationNesta award: £50,000
Michael Brisland is a mechanical engineer who for 15 years has headed a pneumatics company specialising in air motors to drive automated processes in industry. But after studying alternatives to compressed air, he concluded that a water-powered hydraulic system could be seven or eight times more efficient.
‘Water also has the advantage of being cheap and non-toxic,’ says Brisland. This is a big plus in the food industry, where pneumatic systems have the disadvantage that the compressed air stream can be contaminated by oil from the compressor. A feasibility study funded by a DTI Smart award confirmed the food industry as a major target market for Brisland’s proposed new product range.
Now the company, renamed Aquadraulics, has developed a direct-drive system of linear and rotary actuators running on water at 10bar pressure. It will be suitable, Brisland says, for cyclic operations such as pick and place, and packaging lines. It also has potential to replace electric motors for driving conveyors, promising big savings on power. He sees his low pressure system as complementary to an existing range of products made by Danfoss, which is a high pressure system capable of developing more power.
The hydraulic drives will have closed loop microprocessor control to vary speed. It will use standard plumbing techniques and plastic pipes, allowing easy installation and maintenance, and because there are no electrical connections it will not be affected when equipment is hosed down to clean it, again important in the food industry.
Nesta has awarded the project £50,000 over two years to develop the design. Unusually, the system is close to market: Brisland expects the first products to go on sale within ‘a few months’ with a full range of 11 products and derivatives within two years.
Name: Ronald GearyFrom: CheshireOccupation: Structural engineerBackground: Oil industryInnovation: Structural monitor for oil platfoms Nesta award: £50,000
Inspection of offshore structures is an immensely expensive undertaking. Hiring a diving team or a remotely-operated submarine to check for cracks in the legs of an oil platform can cost £100,000 a day, and is an exercise that is only carried out at intervals of typically two years.
But so far no one has come up with a way of remotely monitoring the integrity of offshore structures, or of preventing the equipment being washed away or destroyed in the harsh conditions.
Ronald Geary, who has a background in the oil industry, came up with a solution called the structural integrity detector. Observing how sound propagates through the hull of a ship, he got the idea for a device which would transmit a warning signal through the structure itself, eliminating the need for a cabled connection.
In addition, he argued, if the sensor could be mounted within the hollow legs of the structure it would be protected. But how would it be powered? Batteries cannot be relied on over the life of a structure.
So Geary’s sensor is fitted with the positive and negative electrodes of a cell. When a crack develops in the structure, it fills with sea water, which acts as the electrolyte of the cell. This powers a piezo-electric transducer which sends a high frequency signal through the structure to a monitoring station on the topsides of the platform. As any structure would have many sensors, it also sends a code to identify itself.
Nesta has awarded Geary £50,000 over 12 months to prove the concept of the idea. The funds will pay for engineering safety and risk management consultant EQE International to investigate the physics and carry out market research, while Amtri will work on prototyping.
‘Online monitoring is the Holy Grail,’ says Dr Simon Thurlbeck, EQE International engineering division manager. ‘This doesn’t require intervention and it eliminates the risk in the period between inspections.’