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Powering low carbon tech - Q&A with APC

By Matthew Beecham | 13 May 2019

Jon Beasley

Jon Beasley

The Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) was set up six years ago in Coventry, the once centrepiece of the British car industry. It channels investment from government and industry to accelerate the development of greener technologies for engines. Its funded projects go beyond automotive too. We spoke to Jon Beasley, APC's director of technology and projects, to find out what has been achieved to date.

Can you describe the role of the APC?

In 2013, the UK government and the automotive industry each committed £500 million to deliver a ten-year programme to fund low carbon R&D projects in the UK. Our job is to ensure the UK remains competitive and attractive to undertake R&D and production of low carbon propulsion technologies. To this end, we act as the lead in awarding and allocating the appropriate funding and working with the project partners that could contribute to such programmes. Alongside this, the APC's projects aim to create or safeguard 30,000 jobs and save 50 million tonnes of CO2.

I see our role as key in ensuring that projects avoid falling into the 'valley of death' where viable products or technologies don't get the late stage R&D funding needed.

I see our role as key in ensuring that projects avoid falling into the 'valley of death' where viable products or technologies don't get the late stage R&D funding needed. Through support, we can help these technologies realise their benefits such as improved efficiency and performance but also crucially feed the vibrant ecosystem for high-value manufacturing, testing and development. We are very passionate about this and as someone who worked in powertrain development for close to 30 years, it's something I am very keen to see evolve.

What kind of projects do you look to support?

The scope of these projects includes four of the five strategic technologies identified by the Automotive Council. These are electric machines and power electronics, energy storage and management, thermal propulsion system and lightweight vehicle and powertrain structures. To date, our team of 30 has allocated around £770 million to a diverse range of projects through competitions that are typically held every six months. All of these are released on our website for interested parties to review.

Is this just for the bigger players or can smaller companies take advantage of the funding?

Our project teams are structured so that each must include at least one SME.

We are very proud of the mix of project partners which include BMW, Ford, JLR, McLaren, Nissan and smaller OEMs such as Morgan, Westfield and Norton motorcycles alongside a range of Tier Ones and Twos and even micro businesses. Our project teams are structured so that each must include at least one SME. That's a fantastic opportunity not only to access funding but it's also a chance to work with potential new customers.

Can you list some of the projects?

To date, roughly 75 per cent of projects have been successful.

Absolutely. One element we are very proud of is the high number of projects where knowledge and technologies are rapidly deployed in the mainstream. For example, we had a project with Perkins Engines last year and it will be in series production in 2020. A project that ended 18 months ago will come on stream with JLR very shortly. And it's not just the large OEMs; Hyperdrive, an SME in Sunderland used a project to work closely with Nissan and are now using locally-sourced cells replacing previously imported Korean cells. To date, roughly 75 per cent of projects have been successful and will be deployed one way or another over the next couple of years.

Are all these projects pure automotive?

Some of our projects benefit other sectors, e.g. battery technology being applied to aerospace and drones.

We go beyond that. As an example, we've completed an off-highway project with Perkins that delivered a 10 per cent reduction in CO2. Meanwhile at the other end of the scale, we supported an R&D programme to advance a hydrogen fuel cell for scooters. The experience from that trial of seven Suzuki 'Burgman Fuel Cell' scooters with the Metropolitan Police - a real-world demanding application that helped to increase the operating range for the next generation of the fuel cell stack. It's worth noting that we have witnessed some of our projects benefit other sectors: battery technology being applied to aerospace and drones is a recent good example. The key to access our funding is that automotive must provide the foundation to be eligible.

Do you welcome parties from outside the UK to participate? I'm thinking of China and the rise of EV technologies for example?

We are interested in including international partners, but they cannot access the funding. They can contribute to the competition projects and in the past, we have benefitted from companies such as Faurecia, BorgWarner and Caterpillar getting involved. What we are careful on is that we don't do the hard work, but the benefit goes elsewhere. We have strict controls on this.

How would you describe the impact of the APC to date?

Aside from the emission and job creation benefits we discussed, I'm proud that the APC has protected and accelerated R&D efforts in the UK. It's often one of the first budget items to be cut in tough times but the APC has allowed organisations large and small to undertake R&D that has gone on into production.

What are the next projects?

We have £20 million under assessment for APC12, our most recent open technologies competition. We are particularly interested in projects that support the supply chain sector in the design, build and manufacture of low and zero tailpipe-emission capable vehicles.

And looking further ahead?

We are in discussions with the Automotive Council about expanding the project in line with the UK's industrial and automotive strategy. We are keen to turn our attention to longer-term future trends, creating consensus for the research agenda for 2040. That should include all aspects of new mobility, including bus and truck alongside smaller commercial and passenger vehicles. The APC is well placed and has the established infrastructure to continue seamlessly in providing the vision and strategy that was first identified at the very start and ensure the UK remains at the forefront of these technologies both in terms of adoption but also their design and manufacture and realising value for UK businesses.