The Stephenson LP fund, initially worth £2m, is in line with the IMechE’s original statement-of-purpose, set out by founder George Stephenson in 1847, to “give an impulse to invention likely to be useful to the world”.
The fund will be managed independently by the venture capital company Midven.
The first five investments are in a blade compressor company Lontra, an optical sensing specialist Oxsensis, a fuel cell catalyst developer Amalyst, a fusion energy developer Tokamak Energy, and a space technology business, Oxford Space Systems.
“These investments by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers are not just about providing monetary investment, but about connecting these and other companies to the vast resources and network of the Institution and its membership,” explains IMechE chief executive, Stephen Tetlow. He adds that he is “really excited” that, through the fund, the IMEchE is supporting the five companies “in developing exciting and innovative technologies which really are inventions likely to be useful to the world. This is the Institution getting back to its roots.”
One of the first recipients of the award, Warwickshire-based Lontra, describes its blade compressor as “a step change in air compressor technology”, that is effectively a piston and cylinder, but with the cylinder wrapped into a ring doughnut shape. It has a constantly open intake port, without valves. As the piston rotates, it draws in air behind it and compresses the air in front of it in an almost continuous cycle. The “unique” oil-free design provides internal compression with low leakage and low inlet and outlet flow losses, resulting in machines that are said to be quiet, smooth and efficient.
A low-pressure (1 bar) blade compressor has already been demonstrated in a trial with Severn Trent Water, where reductions in energy consumption of more than 21% were achieved. The potential savings are substantial: blowers for water aeration alone account for about 1% of UK electricity consumption, while compressors account for about 10% of the world’s industrial electricity consumption.
The new funding will help to optimise the design of the compact, double-acting rotary compressor and apply it in other markets, such as cement manufacturing, oil and gas production, and food manufacturing. The system has the potential to produce air at pressures from 7–10 bar.
Lontra has already licenced the technology to Sulzer for use in municipal and wastewater applications and expects to announce other licencees soon.
Lontra’s founder and CEO, Steve Lindsey, says: “It’s great to be the first to receive support and investment from the Institution’s Stephenson Fund. This will support further development of our blade compressor as we seek new licensees. We’re proud that the industrial revolution continues to this day and that the UK remains at the forefront of engineering innovation.”
Another recipient of the new award, Oxsensis, develops instrumentation for use in harsh environments. Its optical sensors send light down an optical fibre and reflect it from a nano-machined piece of sapphire. The system, which can be used to measure different variables, can operate in temperatures of 1,000°C, and is immune from electromagnetic interference. The sensors are intrinsically safe can be deployed over distances of several kilometres.
Oxsensis says its development will deliver improvements in efficiency, emissions, and performance in energy-intensive equipment such as aero-engines, power stations, and oil production systems. The company has formed partnerships with industrial companies including GE Aviation and Parker Aerospace.