New power generation

June 4, 1999

A lightweight electricity generator developed by Imperial College engineers is set torevolutionise industry. Kam Patel reports

A company formed on the back of revolutionary lightweight electricity generator technology developed by engineers at Imperial College, London, has just been floated on Ofex with a valuation of Pounds 72 million.

Turbo Genset Co., based near Heathrow Airport, specialises in compact high-speed alternators powered by a small gas turbine, which can use a variety of fuels including natural gas.

The company's technology continues to be developed by a team led by Colin Besant at Imperial's mechanical engineering department and the college has assigned all intellectual property rights to the firm in exchange for a 9 per cent shareholding.

Patents for the company's designs have been awarded in the United Kingdom, European Union, United States and Asia. Turbo Genset Co is a subsidiary of Turbo Genset Inc, a Canadian Company quoted on the Alberta stock exchange, and 30 per cent of the company is owned by its staff.

Conventional piston engine-driven generators producing 50kW can weigh one to two tonnes. By contrast, the Imperial designed generator produces the same output but weighs only 100kg.

The unit is around the size of a car alternator but produces 50 times the electrical power. In addition to its 50kW design, Turbo Genset Co is developing a 100kW unit. The company plans to develop sets with outputs reaching 1MW.

Colin Besant, chairman of Turbo Genset and professor of computer-aided systems engineering at Imperial, says that the low weight of the units means they are highly portable and adaptable to a wide range of uses.

Transporting generators to remote locations such as drilling sites is expensive and time-consuming, often involving helicopters or heavy trucks.

Turbo Genset's generator, with their low weight and installation costs, offer considerable advantages. The gas turbine engine is also considerably simpler than the conventional piston engine, as it has only one moving part, ensuring maintenance requirements are minimal. Other features include significantly lower emissions and noise.

Other potential applications of the new generators are for standby power in urban institutions such as hospitals, schools and factories.

The firm has also won a contract from Williams Grand Prix Engineering to develop and demonstrate the application of the technology in motorsport.

Professor Besant, who began working on his innovative design 15 years ago, says the technology could revolutionise the power generation industry, helping it to become much distributed in the future.

"With massive power stations, say, by the sea, you can lose up to 50 per cent of the energy as waste. Having smaller, more efficient generators located much closer to where you need the power can help towards substantially reducing heat loss.

"Instead of 40-50 per cent efficiency, we can look to 80-85 per cent. We need to move in this direction anyway to reduce the drain on natural resources and the generation of pollutants."

Power generation, Professor Besant says, is still largely stuck in the era when mainframe computers were dominant.

"Everyone now has a PC on their desk and I think that kind of distribution is in order for power generation."

The company is planning to expand significantly over the next few months. Professor Besant says his job is "to make sure we have the right connections with the big players in power generation technology around the world".

The partnership with Imperial, with the college carrying out the research and the company taking it on to development and production stages, is "ideal" he said.

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