Core business: Electrical generators for wind turbines
Funding: £4.4 million
With wind power gaining momentum worldwide, any company which promises to cut the cost of manufacturing, assembling and maintaining the turbines would be on to a winner – in a global market where investment is expected to be well over £100 billion over the next ten years.
NGenTec aims to become “the preferred supplier of direct-drive and slow-speed permanent magnet generators for the wind energy market,” both offshore and onshore, with its innovative drive train solutions. And what makes its technology so different is the modular, “air-cored” design, which reduces the weight by approximately 30 per cent and enables repairs and replacement of parts without excessive operational downtime – thus reducing costs and improving overall energy yield.
The company was spun out from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering in 2009 by Dr Markus Mueller and his colleague Dr Alasdair McDonald, and within two years it has assembled a management team with the credentials to match its technology, including CEO Dr Makhlouf Benatmane (ex-Converteam), CTO Dr Nazar Al-Khayat (formerly with Williams Grand Prix Engineering), CFO Jim Boyd (former CFO at Aquamarine Power), and CMO Dr Charles Gamble (former CTO of Nordic WindPower). Backing them up are non-executive chairman Dr Derek Shepherd (ex-Aggreko International) and non-executive director Dr Derek Douglas, CEO and chairman of investment firm Adam Smith Ltd (ASL).
The story starts in 2005 in Edinburgh, when Mueller started trying to develop a new kind of direct-drive permanent magnet generator (PMG) for wind turbines. The major problem, according to Mueller, is that wind turbines rotate very slowly – 10–20 revolutions per minute (rpm) – whereas conventional electrical generators want to rotate at thousands of rpm. A gearbox is required to step up the speed, but the gearbox can fail. If a gearbox is not used, the generator rotates at the low speed of the turbine. Such direct-drive generators are large in diameter and very heavy – for example, a 5MW direct-drive generator could weigh 150–200 tonnes and be 5–6m in diameter.
“The gearbox is not the most unreliable part of the turbine, but it’s responsible for most of the downtime,” says Mueller. And if manufacturers could get rid of the gearbox or develop a hybrid design, combining gearbox and direct drive, the turbines would be more reliable, economical and more efficient.
With generators, Mueller says, compromise is always the difficult issue – between the structure, the electrical performance and mechanical design. And NGenTec's modular, lightweight design goes some way to achieving the balance required, producing energy efficiently as well as being easy to maintain.
Mueller and his team have developed a number of prototypes over the last few years, starting in the lab and later moving out into the field, testing the design on fully operational turbines. The first prototypes were funded by a $400,000 Proof Of Concept award from Scottish Enterprise, helped by additional funding from a SMART: Scotland award. After verifying the performance and mechanical, structural, electro-magnetic and thermal characteristics of the design, NGenTec was born and the management team came on board – adding their experience and industry contacts as well as their ability to bring in investors.
The four founders – Mueller, McDonald, Douglas and Shepherd – invested first, followed by SET Venture Partners of Holland and the Scottish Co-Investment Fund (£1 million each), plus a £800,000 grant from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and £200,000 from the Edinburgh Technology Fund.
Another major move has been the forming of a non-exclusive industry partnership with David Brown Gear Systems, part of the Clyde Blowers Group, which helps NGenTec manufacture and test its equipment.
The current challenge is to get a 1MW version into the field and win the company's first customers, then build a full-scale (6MW) prototype – which will require about £6 million in investment over the next two years.
After one year as the acting CTO, Mueller has returned to the research lab, happy that the company is now in the mainstream of the energy business and looking forward to developing more powerful ideas.