The Prince of Wales today launched the National Centre for Propulsion and Power during a visit to the University of Cambridge. Based at the world famous Whittle Laboratory, the Centre aims to accelerate the development of decarbonisation technologies.

We are at a pivotal moment, in terms of both Cambridge’s history of leading technology development in propulsion and power, and humanity’s need to decarbonise these sectors

Rob Miller

The Centre, which is due to open in 2022, will bring together researchers from across UK Universities with industry partners such as Rolls Royce, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Siemens and Dyson to accelerate the development of low-carbon technologies for the propulsion and power sectors.

Professor Rob Miller, Director of the Whittle Laboratory, said: “Our enemy is time. To achieve net-zero by 2050 we have focused on accelerating the technology development process itself. The results have been astonishing, with development times being reduced by a factor of 10 to 100.”

The Prince, who is patron of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), hosted a roundtable meeting of aviation and power generation business leaders, senior Government officials and researchers about how the UK can accelerate the development of decarbonisation technologies.

“We are at a pivotal moment, in terms of both Cambridge’s history of leading technology development in propulsion and power, and humanity’s need to decarbonise these sectors,” said Miller. “Fifty years ago, the Whittle Laboratory and its industrial partners faced the challenge of making air travel efficient and reliable. Now the new Whittle Laboratory and the National Centre will enable us to lead the way in making it green.”

Simon Weeks, Chief Technology Officer of the Aerospace Technology Institute said: “We are pleased to support the National Centre for Propulsion and Power with funding through the ATI Programme. The centre will play a critical role in developing sustainable propulsion technologies – a key part of the UK’s air transport technology strategy. It builds on the world-leading reputation of the Whittle Laboratory to create a globally unique capability.”

Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi said: “The new National Centre for Propulsion and Power will support the UK’s thriving aerospace sector and help it develop cutting-edge technology at an even faster pace. By fuelling innovation we will ensure the UK remains firmly established as a world leader in low carbon technologies - as we make strides towards our goal of net zero emissions by 2050.”

The National Centre, supported by the Aerospace Technology Institute with funding from the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, aims to scale agile technology development to around 80% of the UK’s future aerodynamic needs. The process is described as ‘tightening the circle’ between design, manufacture and testing.

Design time has been reduced used AI and augmented design systems running on graphics processors, originally designed for computer gaming. Manufacturing times have been reduced by directly linking the design systems to rows of in-house 3D printing and rapid machining tools, rather than relying on external suppliers. Testing times have been reduced by developing rapidly assembly and disassembly experimental test facilities, which can be operated by Formula One-style pit teams.

“There’s a natural human timescale of about a week, in which if you can go from idea to result then you have a virtuous circle between understanding and inspiration,” said Miller. “We’ve found that when the technology development timescale approaches the human timescale – as it does in our leaner process – then innovation explodes.”

The aviation roundtable was convened by the Whittle Laboratory and CISL, which share a common objective of developing new ways in which policy leadership, industry and academia can collaborate to accelerate innovation and achieve net-zero by 2050.

The University launched Cambridge Zero in 2019 to bring together its research, policy and private sector engagement activities on climate change. The Whittle Laboratory and CISL are key partners in that initiative, and both demonstrate the importance of academia working with government and the private sector on the critical issue of our time.

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