Implementing innovation: An interview with Accelleron CTO Dirk Bergmann
Accelleron CTO Dirk Bergmann discusses innovation, digitalization and decarbonization at Accelleron.
The fundamental parts and processes that make every turbocharger function were invented more than 100 years ago by Alfred Büchi, who joined Accelleron’s ancestor company Brown, Boveri and Cie to oversee its first industrial production.
The genius of that design was such that, for keeping international shipping on the move, the combination of an internal combustion engine with turbochargers still remains the only practical solution – in terms of both engineering and economics.
As a result, there are several different patterns to innovation at Accelleron, which devotes a very healthy 6-7% of its annual turnover to Research and Development.
Experiment; test; refine and repeat
When it comes to mechanical innovations in a product segment like turbochargers for industrial marine engines, innovation lies in optimizing details, such as developing a more efficient turbine or improving the flow field inside a turbocharger.
Significant developments take time. We begin the work with digital solutions that require us to apply our modeling skills and theoretical knowledge. We have to do all the product risk mitigations as part of the classification and certification processes. We need to prove the concept and implement safety precautions and, in the best-case scenario, also gain experience with front-runners or prototypes operating in the field. This process typically takes three to eight years.
But there are still opportunities for more dramatic leaps forward. Before too long, we believe we will be able to 3D print parts of the turbocharger, for example, so we can innovate in different ways. If we can print the turbine and/or the compressor wheel and reduce the mechanical impact after a burst, it would certainly be disruptive to our market. We could produce something lighter and at a far lower cost. But, to do that, we clearly need to see further improvements in printing technologies. The wheels are in motion, however. We are currently working with an external partner to turn these improvements into a reality within the next five to ten years.
The second pathway
On the other hand, if you enter brand-new sectors such as digitalization or turbocharging fuel cells, you can approach innovation in a much more comprehensive way. So different approaches are needed.
Digital technology has revolutionized our business over recent years. We have developed a variety of simulation models for our internal product development. We use them for containment safety certification, among other things, in close cooperation with our testing facilities. With regards to how our digital products can support our customers, we also have ACTUS – a very comprehensive tool for gearing our turbochargers’ application engineering toward their individual needs and optimizing their performance. Based on the digital model and data generated we develop and improve digital offerings for our customers, in turbocharger service contracts as well as with Tekomar XPERT, focusing at optimizing performance and reducing emissions of the entire engine and vessel.
To accelerate these branches of our innovation, Accelleron is entering into collaborative relationships with external partners. Over the past few decades, we have focused more on improving everything relating to our turbocharging portfolio, but we also recognize the need to be able to generate new ideas through external partners. Doing so will help us to broaden our view and increase our opportunities to come up with innovative ideas.
Of course, innovation is not only about maintaining competitiveness. Macroeconomic and global political forces drive change in very particular directions that demand new approaches across every sector.
At the moment in our industries – and this will be the case for the next decade or two – it’s about making the transition from fossil fuels to sustainable renewable energy sources.
In the maritime industry, it’s about switching from heavy fuel oil to natural gas and other sustainable liquid fuels like green ammonia and methanol. In power generation, it’s more about increasing the use of hydrogen.
This is a significant change of focus. Over the past three decades, our industry has focused on the efficiency and productivity of given technical concepts. Today, we have to switch to an exploratory culture to find out which energy source and which energy conversion technology is the right one for both our society and our industry.
The jury is still out with respect to what will be used as the primary fuel of the future. Our simulations and experience show that Accelleron turbochargers can handle all the fuel types under consideration. Even ammonia doesn’t pose us any problems. We can offer our customers specific turbochargers to meet their needs, and our qualified R&D group can help our customers immediately should any issues arise. Combined with our global service network, this provides very good risk mitigation for many of our customers to adopt these new fuels.
In some transportation sectors, the potential of electric batteries has become exciting. But for international shipping, they aren’t currently viable. Current battery technologies must carry all the chemical components inside them to enable energy storage and conversion. This means batteries have a much lower power density than other fuel choices used with an internal combustion engine, because the reactants must be kept in the battery. The fuel cell might provide an alternative. But even fuel cells get more efficient when they are turbocharged. Because of this, there will be a continued need for highly efficient and reliable turbochargers into the future.
We can’t immediately research only the right and most efficient route because we don’t know what that is yet. That is why we must explore all the possible ways in which we can reduce our carbon impact. From my point of view, decarbonization is the main driver of innovation today, and we are in a superb position to support this required openness to technical solutions. We are the enabler for engine improvements and the transition to almost all other fuel types. The turbocharger is a key component. If you don’t have a turbocharger to make combustion as efficient as possible, you won’t be able to make a new engine run on these future sustainable fuels.
Interview first published in Tradewinds 29th March 2023