Actuators, actually

Electric motors are amongst the most important and exciting technologies of the past decade. But, while you wouldn’t dream of buying a car without asking about the engine that powers it, people are happy buying electrical goods powered by motors they’ve never heard of. Let us explain why motors should turn you on…

The latest Dyson electric motor has advanced much quicker than most comparable technologies | Image James Carey

At the launch of his latest vacuum cleaner in New York, Sir James Dyson compared the measurable improvement of the Mini Cooper S engine, since its debut in 1963, with that of the V10 electric motor his company uses to drive its latest device.

“We love the Mini. They are brilliant cars,” Sir James said “we’ve even got one that is sawn in half at our campus in Malmesbury. But, by way of an example showing the increased power:weight ratio we have achieved in our motor, it has taken 60 years for Mini to achieve what we did in 10.”

When the first Mini Cooper S was released in 1963 it had a top speed of 93 mph, could accelerate from zero to sixty in 12.2 seconds, and had just 68 horsepower.

The 2018 Mini Cooper can reach a top speed of 146mph | Image James Carey

Today the equivalent 2018 Mini Cooper S Hatch has a top speed of 146 mph, does zero to sixty in 6.7 seconds, and has 192 horsepower. Considering just speed, this is essentially a six second acceleration improvement over half a century — or 0.11mph a year.

Although the comparison may seem unfair, as Sir James himself admitted during his speech, this inertia stems from the fact that the combustion engine is a heavy multi-limbed beast by comparison to the agile electric motor.

Since 2009, when they launched their first battery-powered motor, the “V2”, Dyson has spent over £350 million researching and developing their motor technology.

Compared with their first-generation motor, the new V10 motor is half the weight but three times more powerful. To put this in perspective, if the same were true for a Mini it would have to be capable of reaching a top speed of nearly 280mph (just over the 277mph fastest production car speed record set by a Koenigsegg Agera in 2017) and weigh-in at just a quarter of the record-breaking vehicle’s 1,395kg.

While for the internal-combustion engine this rate of change has proven impossible, electrical motors have grown quicker, lighter, and more powerful every year making them one of the most innovative, multi-disciplinary technologies on the planet. They are currently used throughout your domestic lives, powering all of Dyson’s hairdryers, purifier fans, and cord-free vacuum cleaners but also in more exotic fields.

From electrical vehicles to robotic manufacturing lines, the electrical motor has today become ubiquitous with the machines that science fiction has long-since predicted would dominate our future.

But, despite being arguably the devices of the decade, they are actually far older than you may have assumed.

So-called ‘actuators’, which is the broad term for ‘movers’ or electro-mechanical devices that can produce a controlled, often repeated movement, date back to the 1800s. The prime mover of actuators, was the revolutionary physicist, Michael Faraday, and his pioneering electro-magnetic ‘Homopolar motor’. His continuous rotation experiment showed that it was possible for an electromagnet to convert electrical energy into mechanical motion. After Faraday’s experiment other venerable scientists and industrialists like Peter Barlow, William Sturgeon, James Clerk Maxwell, and Nikola Tesla all helped to make the technology readily available to the public.

Comparing a Dyson motor from 2009 with one released earlier this year reveals a rapid rate of change | Image James Carey

During the intervening 200 years, the internal combustion engine literally took off — in the 20th century’s most iconic planes, trains, and automobiles. For anyone who has ‘commuted’ at 745mph from London to New York in a Boeing 777, it must have seemed as though the electrical motor had been defeated by the gas-glugging engines. However, the modes of transportation that once championed engines are now turning their backs on them, instead embracing the electric motor.

Some may think that Dyson’s latest V10 digital motor is simple technology just because it will only ever be used to suck up dust. Those people are wrong.

Its creation is an example of everything that makes electrical motors exciting. It uses materials found in satellites, cost millions to design and required a research team with backgrounds in aerodynamics, robotics, and structural engineering. It is without doubt one of the most interesting pieces of technology that you can fit in your hand.

Just like Dyson’s new motor, this issue on:Revolutions is more than the sum of its parts. The stories told on its pages describe the past, present, and future of this innovative technology which will soon, quite literally, be propelling us all forwards into the future.

This was originally published in on:Revolutions in June 2018.