Charging into the future

Zytek is a great British success story. The University of Sheffield has recognised that fact with an honorary degree for company founder Bill Gibson | by Ed Foster

The University of Sheffield has awarded Zytek founder Bill Gibson an honorary degree. The Doctor of Engineering title acknowledges not only his passion for innovation, but also the work that has been carried out by Zytek in electric and hybrid technology over the past 30 years.

Gibson founded Zytek in 1982, after a spell as an electronics engineer at Lucas, and has always held a firm belief that electric and hybrid systems would form a large part of the future of road cars and motor sport. The company’s work broke onto the world stage in 1984 when its digital engine management system was used on that year’s F1 Toleman. Since then, it has undertaken projects such as the 1998 Lotus Elise EV, Gordon Murray’s T27 city car, electronic gearshift mechanisms, complete LMP2 cars and F1 KERS systems.

“It’s interesting,” says managing director Neil Heslington of the KERS systems. “People used to talk about F1 technology transferring across to road cars and it was quite tenuous, but F1 KERS is a good example – we are now moving towards the performance we got on those early F1 systems in a more cost-effective way. We’re now using those on road cars and in other racing disciplines.”

Zytek, in partnership with Nissan Motorsport, currently provides its 4.5-litre V8 for various LMP2 cars – three of which took a 1-2-3 class clean sweep in this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours – as well as full KERS systems for Japan’s Super GT series and engines for Formula Renault 3.5 and Auto GP. While regulations for next year’s American United Sports Car Championship aren’t yet finalised, Zytek will no doubt be high on the list for LMP2 teams that are preparing to face Grand-Am’s Daytona Prototypes under a Balance of Performance formula.

The Zytek Group is split into three different entities – Automotive, Engineering and Motorsport, 50 per cent of the former being owned by German company Continental AG (the tyre/auto parts company). “Motorola bought 19 per cent of our shares in 2000,” says Heslington. “They were doing ECUs for road car manufacturers, but didn’t have their own software algorithms. We did, so they bought in. Continental acquired Motorola’s road car division [in 2006] and they suddenly had a share in this little company back in the UK. Eventually someone got to the bottom of the paperwork and they actually paid a visit. They ended up increasing their share.”

The company turnover is split 70 per cent Automotive and 30 per cent Engineering (with Motorsport taking up a share of each), but Zytek is now looking into various defence projects. It can’t talk about any of those – or much of its work, for that matter – but hybrid technology for the defence industry and military transport applications becomes extremely interesting when you consider that to transport a gallon of fuel into operational areas can cost $400. Not to mention how you might use a quiet electric motor for certain periods.

A problem with all contemporary battery technology is the length of time it takes to charge. Zytek is currently working on a new electric taxi for London, however – one which will be able to charge to 80 per cent in 20 minutes. “The motor sport activities that we’ve done on KERS systems have given us the confidence in the cells and the battery management systems to know what is achievable on that front,” says Heslington. “That’s why we’ve set ourselves the target of an 80 per cent charge on a 20-minute taxi break.” It’s a huge target and one, if successful, that could change the face of London taxi travel.

Due to the confidential nature of Zytek’s work it can’t shout about many projects. Gibson’s honorary degree at least goes some way towards rectifying that situation.