Collaborative R&D Competitions

A collaboration between industry and academia to optimise off-highway engine efficiency


Diesel engines have dominated off-highway applications for the best part of a century. Their high thermal efficiency means they remain the default choice in these roles. Still, manufacturers are having to work harder than ever before to reduce emissions, increase power density and improve fuel economy.

The ASCENT project was set up to develop new technologies in response to these challenges. It was a collaborative effort from Perkins Engines (a UK-based subsidiary of Caterpillar), Loughborough University, Imperial College and CMCL Innovations, with £13 million of funding supplied by the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) (towards a total project value of £26 million). 

The aim of the project was to bring together industry and academia to productionise several concepts, relating to both in-cylinder combustion and exhaust after-treatment. As part of this, Imperial College used its simulation expertise to optimise the intake air path, while Loughborough University developed a novel after-treatment system. CMCL applied its own statistical approach to engine modelling to predict exhaust gas emissions. The aim was to achieve a 10% improvement in CO2. 

The findings from the project were implemented on Caterpillar’s C4.4 industrial engine. Since then, many of the concepts have been applied to other Caterpillar engines, broadening the application of technologies from this project to up to 100,000 engines per year. At this volume, even an incremental improvement in efficiency can yield savings of millions of tonnes of CO2 across the lifetime of the products.  

“The great thing about the APC process is that it allowed us to take a number of technologies from a research and development level, through to a productionised state,” comments Robin Woodward, Senior Technical Manager at Perkins. “The collaborative approach meant that we had an amazing team at our disposal, and as a result, we saw outcomes and solutions that we never envisaged at the start of the programme.” 

Overall, the programme has been credited with creating or safeguarding 490 jobs within the consortium and the wider supply chain. In the case of CMCL, it allowed the company to increase its headcount by 50 per cent and led to the release of three peer-reviewed journal articles. Meanwhile, it has provided an ideal platform for the universities to demonstrate the real-world value of their research. 

“The ASCENT project is a great example that I can use in lectures to illustrate what we do and the impact that it has in the real-world. That’s not something that undergraduates always get to see,” comments Dr Aaron Costall, lecturer in thermo fluids at Imperial College.  

With diesel engines being a key technology in off-highway applications, the benefits of these innovations will help the transition to lower carbon solutions.