A British based specialist electric motor technology company, AEM, which was spun off from Newcastle University is on a mission to change. the global automotive and aviation industries away from using rare earth magnets in high tech zero emisson power trains, to switch to electric motors using the two most abundant metals on earth aluminium and steel.
Instead of demolishing a mountain to source a meagre amount of rare earths for a growing demand in electric motors, the company Advanced Electric Machines believes economically, environmentally and on an efficiency basis its solution will be better on every level.
T&B News met with Advanced Electric Machines’ (AEM) co founder Dr James Widmer when he was in Australia recently for a briefing on the company, where it came from where it is going and its ideas and philosophy on the electrification of the World’s transport operations
Widmer pointed out that last year around 450,000 electric and hybrid vehicles were registered in the UK– and that represents a one in four ratio for all new cars and vans. While three new cars in every four rely totally on internal combustion engines, the numbers are swinging toward electric with a rapid year on shift.Meanwhile some experts predict there will be 20 million electrified vehicles on global roads by 2025.
AEM was a spin off from one of the epicentres of advanced electric vehicle development globally, Newcastle University. Newcastle found itself at the centre of electric vehicle power thanks to a century old legacy as a leader in the field of electric motor development. Of all areas of the UK, the North East of England is already benefitting the most from this global move towards electrification, thanks in part to the work at Newcastle Uni.
Aided by the introduction of the Nissan Leaf–arguably the world’s first mass-market EV–which entered production at the company’s Sunderland facility near Newcastle in 2010, the region now boasts burgeoning electric vehicle expertise.
At the same time that Nissan began production of the Leaf more than a decade ago, it also opened a local facility to produce the vehicle’s battery cells. This spawned smaller companies that both supplied and fed off Nissan’s plant–such as Sunderland-based Hyperdrive, which repackaged the plant’s battery cells into bespoke applications.
Newcastle University boasts the UK’s largest academic research group in electrical power, and so it was within this group, and as faculty at the university, that Dr James Widmer and Dr Andy Steven first pioneered the technology that underpins Advanced Electric Machines’ proposition.
Drs Scott and Widmer were a part of the electric motor research and development centre within the university when it was decided to spin it off in 2017 as a commercial entity
“Back in 2010 it was hard to imagine that the electric vehicle industry would grow up in the way that it has, and that the North East would become such a relevant part of its future,” Dr Widmer said.
“As well as the gravitational pull of Nissan’s electrification programme, this was also thanks to several academic and industry initiatives,” he added.
However while Widmer and AEM maybe based in England, the company is aggressively pursuing opportunities around the world and of course here in Australia with a variety of enterprises, including potentially local bus makers and commercial vehicle makers.
AEM is now recognised across the globe for its rare-earth free, high performance electric motors and powertrain systems. The journey to get to this point has not been simple, and we’re still only at the start of our overall mission to make the world’s EVs sustainable, but to get a picture of how everything began for us, let’s rewind to 2009.
Dr. Widmer, was an aerospace expert with Bae Systems, when he decide to go back to university to do a PhD and to aim to working more sustainable technologies. It wasn’t an easy venture, given at that time that electric vehicles were only just beginning to look like a feasible possibility. Andy Stevens was also working at the uni at the time and was an expert in rotating machinery and transmission technologies, had a long and successful stint in industry. Both Andy and James, were seeking to pursue their passion for developing sustainable technologies in an increasingly unsustainable world.
Back then James noticed that vehicle manufacturers were looking to employ permanent magnet motors as part of their electric vehicle solutions, and he realised that if these vehicles were to become the norm, the quantity of rare earth metals needed could become catastrophic for the environment.
James began to research and develop rare earth-free electric motors, supporting the first-generation development of OEM vehicles with JLR, Airbus and Cummins in the process. He became the director of the Advanced Propulsion Centre’s Electric Machines Spoke, a role in which he would meet , Mike Woodcock, who acknowledged another limitation of the use of permanent magnet electric motors – the lack of a route to recycling due to the copper and magnets they contain, meaning many would end up in landfill. This led the pair to question the possibility of removing the rare earths and the copper from the motor, and creating a fully recyclable solution. This would become the eventual mission statement of Advanced Electric Machines.
James and Andy’s work eventually led the pair to a realisation that they had developed a commercially viable product that had the chance to change the world.
So in March 2017 Advanced Electric Machines. was spun out of Newcastle University and into the commercial world.
“The problem with rare earths is that it’s an easy way to achieve a goal, but it’s very flawed in lots of ways. For a start when you put these magnets on the spinning part of the motor. it’s where it’s the most difficult to get heat out of, they’re great when they’re cold, but as they get hot performance drops off,” said James.
“So AEM’s motors do not use magnets at all instead using the combination of steel and aluminium because we can get really good performance out of it, we have a patented way of making coils that go around the motor, it makes it lighter, more efficient and gives the motor a longer life,” he said.
It’s some of those qualities that make Dr Widmer and AEM to look to potential uses for its electric motors in heavy commercial operations including trucks and buses, particularly given the often high ambient temperature and demanding conditions that face operators here, with buses and coaches as well as heavy trucks up to and including road trains in outback areas.
“We see a lot of potential in Australia and we have a focus on this part of the world,” he said.
The company currently has a sales office in Bangkok, where is senior business development manager for the region, David Hunter is based.
”We’re in discussion with a lot of OEMs looking to buy this latest generation of electric motor technology, we’ve got another generation we’re looking at for quite a lot of the big global companies to see if they can use the technology and there doesn’t seem to be anybody else out there doing anything similar at the moment.”
AEM currently employs about 60 people. and currently has a production line which by the end of this year will be able to do 12,000 advanced electric motors a year. and is looking to move to a bigger facility of around 12,000 square metre at the back end of this year which will allow it to do much larger volumes and they’re also looking at plants in the US and potentially in Thailand