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Appliance of science

Science fiction films love to depict a future society dominated by machines serving a morose and unhappy populace, the moral being that material well-being does not necessarily bring spiritual contentment. And yet as the computer chip has taken over much of humanity’s workload our quality of life has in reality improved. Britain is still one of the most innovative of nations and throughout the country are dotted research centres which are quietly pushing back the boundaries of technology. We investigated one ten miles south of Cambridge and another, ironically, ten miles south of Oxford, which could have a significant effect on the future of road transport and motorsport.

The Cambridgeshire organisation is one which the motor racing world knows very little about and whose name would be an immediate turn-off, for it conjures up completely the wrong image. And yet it is a technological centre whose work has ramifications far beyond the realms of the United Kingdom.

It is an organisation to which more than 700 companies are affiliated, ranging in size from the multinational to the family business. What each has in common is the access to top-rate advice.

The work of this organisation, however, falls into three areas; research undertaken on a co-operative basis, with results being made generally available; confidential research commissioned by a member company, in which case all the information obtained is for its exclusive use; and its role as a worldwide problem-solver.

It was while visiting it that I had firsthand experience of its trouble-shooting activities. A telephone call came through from an engineer having problems extending a hangar and was unsure of the safety parameters of one particular aspect. Calm technical advice reassured the caller that he was tackling it in the correct way.

Although not exclusively involved with the automotive world, this institute has amongst its members Jaguar, Range Rover, Ford, General Motors and Nissan, and component manufacturers such as Lucas. Other areas of industry represented include aerospace, offshore drilling, traditional engineering and computers.

The Aladdin’s Cave of laboratories and research areas is a treasure trove of variety. In one area is a huge section of offshore oil-pipe undergoing deep-water tests, or the tall tower in which items are dropped from a great height to measure their destruction capabilities, but elsewhere research into computer chips with 3-micron wire (7 micron being the dimension at which the wire is so light that it points up when unwound) are being tested in con-rods, valves, pistons and even wheels. Problems encountered in one industry have often been overcome in another and it is via this organisation that the flow of information is maintained.

So what has all this got to do with motor sport? Nothing at the moment, for there are no racing car manufacturers or teams utilising the facilities and expertise on tap here. Part of the problem is that if this organisation is known about, its title conjures up the wrong image, and partly because racing car manufacturers are so sensitive about secrecy that they could not countenance the thought of their secrets becoming general knowledge.

While on my visit to this establishment I came across evidence of previously unheardof problem-solving. For instance, it is acknowledged that carbon-fibre cannot be bonded together, yet I saw it done, and such a breakthrough implies that a chassis, for instance, need have no metal in it, and even parts of the engine can be altered. The ceramic engine is already known about, but plastic inlet manifolds have already been used by one car company; they were a commercial failure despite their weight-saving and cleaner interior, but there is no reason why this and other ideas cannot be transferred to the race-track, where financial constraints are less inhibiting.

Despite all the high-tech equipment, the most impressive aspect of my visit was the quality of the staff. The place is manned by wall-to-wall lateral thinkers for whom nothing is impossible. The boundaries are being pushed ever further forward and the horizons of designers in several industries are being increasingly extended. The only constraint is money, for there is never any other reason to stop.

The name of the organisation, by the way, is the Welding Institute. I told you it conjured up the wrong image…

For all my motoring career, oil has been nothing more than the liquid that pour into my engine to keep it healthy, after a tour around the Esso Research Centre near Abingdon, I have become a little more enlightened.

The work that which engine oil need do has altogether changed since the turn the century. It was in the Twenties that oils were universally standardised as to their viscosity with the adoption of the Society of Automotive Engineers “SAE” classification and in the Thirties that anti-wear additives were introduced to bolster the performance of the traditional straight mineral oil. In 1952 the multigrade made its appearance and negated the necessity of bi-annual oil change between “summer” and “winter” grades, but the real revolution occurred in the 1960s.

Oil already had to last twice as long because new car oil-change intervals increased from 1500 miles to 3000 miles, the advent of the Mini with its transverse engine and integral gearbox created a series of problems. The oil now had withstand the shearing action of gearchanges and the continuous high speed meshing of the gears, it had to cope with “mayonnaise” phenomenon caused by ram air stream hitting the transverse rocker box, it had to deal with a fast-revving, more highly stressed engine and it still had to prevent excessive oil consumption. result was the introduction of a thicker multigrade known by its SAE rating 20W/50, which subsequently inappropriately became the motorist’s byword for quality and allowed many indifferent oils to masquerade as desirable.

In the two decades since, engines have become smaller, lighter and faster-revving, they have more power per litre and produce more miles per gallon. Single overhead camshafts, five-speed gearboxes, petrol injection and turbocharging have all become commonplace, while the engine’s “breathing” system has been changed in order to re-cycle partially burnt exhaust gases. Oil is now expected to last four times as long, as intervals between change extend towards 12,000 miles.

To cope with this ever-increasing demand, each oil company has its own research centre. Esso has three worldwide, with Abingdon responsible for European product development.

On its 60-acre site, tests are continuously carried out every day of the year, with the exception of a short shut-down over Christmas. The laboratories would be bliss for any do-it-yourselfer, for the parts of pretty well every engine manufactured are stored on site. When an engine comes into the laboratory it is completely stripped and rebuilt with new parts, so that every unit has the same starting base. Approximately 1200 engines every year are “blueprinted” in this way.

The centre has three rolling roads (one with climate control), engine test laboratories and a fleet of up to 150 passenger cars, vans and trucks across Europe, each with its own blueprinted engine which is carefully monitored. The centre gets through more than one million gallons of fuel a year in tests.

The problem exercising every oil company at present is a blight known as Black Sludge. In the same way that computers can catch viruses, engines can catch the “Black Death”, an epidemic that has already swept Germany. This is not to be confused with the sludge of yore which could be overcome with sophisticated detergents and dispersals. The new strain is of an entirely different character, a virus which might not affect similar vehicles in the same way, or at the same time.

Black Sludge is a thick, noxious tar-like agglomeration that gradually builds up into rippling layers within the cooler parts of the engine. These layers spread, clogging oilways, blocking filters and eventually causing the engine to seize as the bearings become starved of oil. Its cause is still unknown, but it is thought to be related to ventilation systems. in certain engine designs, fuel composition, driving patterns and also to the lubricant. Unfortunately you cannot see if the car is suffering without taking off the rocker cover, which is where it starts before it travels down onto the valve deck, into the sump and the engine vent pipes. At the moment there is no cure other than to have your car thoroughly drained of oil, flushed through with a detergent, and then refilled with a top-quality lubricant — likely to be synthetic-based and thus have more inherent stability under intense heat and pressure, than the traditional mineral-based lubricant. WPK

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