University receives funding boost to build high-power electric motors for rail, shipping and aviation

Low-emission electric aircraft seem like a dream today but work is under way on the technology needed to keep planes flying in a decarbonised world.

Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington’s Robinson Research Institute is leading a project that has just been awarded nearly $15 million by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to work on high-power electric motors for large-scale transport such as planes, trains and ships.

The funding, across seven years, will enable the Institute working with project partners to draw on New Zealand’s world-leading expertise in superconductor engineering and power electronics. It is one of just three projects funded by MBIE under the Strategic Science Investment Fund.

Institute deputy director and principal engineer Dr Rod Badcock says the programme has four workstreams: superconducting machines, cryogenic systems, power electronics, and training and education.

Research on superconducting machines will be based at the University. Cryogenic systems work will be led and managed by the Institute with investigations also taking place at research partners Callaghan Innovation and AUT.

The pressing need to keep the world moving while massively reducing global carbon emissions provides the impetus for this work, Dr Badcock says. Currently, 96 percent of the world’s transportation energy comes from fossil fuels, making it a major target for decarbonisation. Transport represents about one-third of global energy use.

“Reducing global carbon emissions from heavy freight and passenger transport requires the switch to electric propulsion for rail, shipping and aviation. But these applications require new high-power, lightweight motors which are beyond existing technologies.”

He says New Zealand's economy is heavily dependent on aviation and–as the current global situation shows–is highly exposed to any limitations in international travel.

“It is widely recognised that superconducting machines offer the only feasible route to realising large-scale hybrid electric aircraft. Aviation poses perhaps the biggest challenge of all, as entirely new technology must be developed and deployed within a strict regulatory regime.”

Dr Badcock says the Institute will develop key components for these high-power, lightweight and fully superconducting motors.

This programme will enable industry to exploit the technology in New Zealand, create skilled people for a high-value workforce, and facilitate a high-value export market in the electrification of transport.

“This programme of work will make a significant contribution to the emerging international effort to develop large-scale hybrid electric aircraft.

The programme will also focus on ancillary subsystems, including the development of new capability in the design and prototyping of high-performance cryocoolers and heat exchangers. A cryocooler is a specific type of refrigerator that allows the extremely low temperatures (minus 220 degrees Celsius) required by superconductors to be reached.

The Institute is working with a number of project partners across New Zealand and is strongly supported by several iwi and hapu, including Ngāi Tahu and Waikato Tainui.  Working with these partners will enable the development of sustainable transport technologies and support the ongoing development of Māori scientists, engineers and technologists of the future.

The Institute, along with its partners, has also received a grant of $11.6 million from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, for a programme developing ion thrusters incorporating superconductor magnets on spacecraft.  Powered by solar cells, and with the use of superconductors, the new thrusters will be more powerful for their weight and revolutionise space technology.