Revamping just one excavator would equal taking 18 diesel family cars off the road, say engineers.
A group of Scottish inventors has received £11m to digitise the century-old model of hydraulics in heavy construction plant, which they believe will halve the greenhouse gas emissions excavators and other machines pump out now.
They say the fuel efficiency gains are so stark that equipping a single excavator with their "Digital Displacement" technology would be equivalent to taking 18 diesel family cars off the road.
The consortium, led by Edinburgh-based Artemis Intelligent Power, believes most of the energy produced by plant engines now is wasted as heat, and that implanting digital control in a machine’s hydraulics would radically improve efficiency.
The 42-month research project, assisted by £11m from the government-linked Advanced Propulsion Centre UK, will develop a new generation of digitised hydraulic pumps and motors to be used in excavators, wheel loaders and material handling equipment.
Even modest adoption rates would see CO2 savings of 10 million tonnes over 10 years, claims the consortium, which hopes to target the $3.5bn off-road vehicle hydraulic machinery market.
Helping Artemis is hydraulic equipment manufacturer, Danfoss, and Scottish firm Robbie Fluid Engineering.
Artemis managing director Niall Caldwell said excavators of the future will have smaller engines, be cheaper to run and use less than half the energy, whether run on fossil fuel, hydrogen, biogas or batteries.
"Hydraulics are very compact, robust and cost-effective, but there’s a hidden problem," Caldwell said in a press notice last week.
"When we tested a standard excavator, we were shocked to discover that most of the work done by the engine is wasted as heat inside the system. Rather than focusing on the engine itself, we realised that the most cost-effective way to reduce the fuel consumption and emissions of these machines is to eliminate this waste, by improving the efficiency of the hydraulic system."
He continued: "The problem is that the ‘analogue’ hydraulic mechanisms under the hood waste energy and are difficult to interface to modern digital control systems, resulting in excess fuel consumption and emissions.
"These old mechanisms have done sterling service for over 100 years – so change is well overdue. With Digital Displacement we are leading hydraulic power into the digital age by embedding digital control into the very heart of the machine. Now hydraulics can compete with electrical drives on efficiency and control, offering a new roadmap towards the low-carbon future for this industry."
Mark Robbie at Robbie Fluid Engineering said: "I have been working in hydraulics for many years and it’s clear there has been no paradigm-shifting innovation within the sector. The hydraulic industry has made fantastic progress on reliability and robustness but there is a clear need to improve efficiency."
Artemis’ technology has already been tested in a 16-tonne excavator as a "straight swap" with the existing hydraulic pump. This trial showed fuel savings of over 20% and improvements in productivity.
With the new funding, the consortium will make a fully digital hydraulic hybrid system to completely replace analogue pumps and valves with digital technology, including hydraulic accumulator energy storage.
Image: View from the cab of an excavator, 2014 (Hans Haase/Creative Commons)