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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Products & processes projects > A break without tradition
Graphic element A break without tradition
    09-06-2000
 

It is all too easy to fill up with petrol, then forget to take the pump nozzle out of a car's filler tube before driving off. The petrol that spills onto the station forecourt may cause fire, explosion and pollution. A Swedish-led CRAFT consortium has developed the materials and design technology required to produce a 'break-away' valve, which will effectively eliminate this risk by automatically blocking the flow of fuel. Working with fellow SMEs, research institutes and a contract research company, Malte Persson & Son has reached the field testing stage for a new valve, which could find worldwide markets in the near future.

Every day, hundreds of European motorists drive out of filling stations with the pump nozzle still in the car's filler tube. This can be purely accidental - forgetting to replace the nozzle in its holster is easier than you might think - or deliberate, in cases of drive-off petrol theft. In days past, this would result in significant damage to the hose or main pump unit and the threat of spillage. Until stopped, petrol would spew out of such damaged units at the rate of 40 to 200 litres per minute, causing fire and explosion hazards, creating volatile organic compound air pollution and damaging delicate urban watercourses.

Preventing petrol leaks

What was needed was a 'break-away' valve - a small unit fitted between the nozzle and the hose, which would allow the nozzle to shear off at relatively low forces, avoiding damage to the pump or vehicle bodywork. At the same time, a locking valve would prevent any petrol leakage.

"The break-away valve is not a new concept. The technology has been around for some time," says Lars-Inge Andersson of Malte Persson. "However, people kept moving the goalposts. First, regulations governing how much spillage was permissible were tightened. Then petrol formulations changed. Oil companies are now 'cracking' the heavy end of the barrel and using the resulting light fractions in motor fuels, which makes the petrol much more corrosive, lowering the effective life of the valves. And if that wasn't enough, car owners want easy filling - the existing valves were simply too clumsy."

Clearly, a new type of design was needed. "That much was obvious," says Mr Andersson. "However, we are a small company, and although we have a technical department, we did not have sufficient resources to go it alone.
"We needed partners, not just to share the risk, but also to give the concept an international dimension. Petrol formulations, environmental conditions and pump designs vary across Europe. The petrol formulation is important, since the fuel can corrode the materials used in the valve. The valve must ensure the same break force at -40°C in winter in the Arctic as at +40°C in summer in the Mediterranean, and the pump design defines whether the valves can be easily fitted."

The answer was to assemble a consortium of partners, apply for CRAFT funding and bring in external research expertise to complement the partners' own design and manufacturing experience.
Malte Persson did just that. Using its contacts in the industry, the company found three SME partners, comprising a pump manufacturer, a components producer, and a plastics parts maker. It also recruited a large company specialising in producing petrol pumps, the Danish Institute for Product Development, Sweden's National Testing and Research Institute and Utvecklingsbyrån Sverige Project, an SME contract research company. The result was a research collaboration involving partners from Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.

Tough requirements, tougher plastics

"We were faced with some tough technical objectives," explains Mr Andersson. "New European legislation limited the acceptable spillage from a sheared valve to 10 millilitres. Add to this the demands for corrosion resistant materials and the need for a more compact design, and the project starts becoming quite complex."

Complex, yes, but achievable. The team has accomplished all its technical goals. These included developing new aluminium alloys for the metallic components of the valve and a specially formulated tough, conductive polyacetal polymer for plastic sections. "This was a key part of the project," says Mr Andersson. "Plastics can build up static electricity, which can suddenly discharge and create an explosion risk. Using conductive carbon and other additives in the formulation removes this danger."

Once armed with appropriate materials, the next task was to develop a compact design. "This is where the Institute for Product Development in Copenhagen really contributed," says Mr Andersson. "Our previous break-away valves had 14 components and were nine centimetres long. The new design has ten parts and measures just four centimetres."

Designing a new product is one thing. Proving that it works is something else entirely. "We had to embark on an extensive testing programme," declares Mr Andersson. "This was carried out by the Swedish National Testing and Research Institute. They put the valve through its paces, assessing characteristics such as the fuel leakage on break, and the shear forces required to achieve the break itself." The new valve passed with flying colours and meets all current and anticipated EU norms.

  Towards commercialisation

The next steps are field testing and commercialisation. "We have shipped 250 prototypes," says Mr Andersson. "These will be tested at filling stations across Europe. This is a requirement, because fuel formulations and corrosion properties vary. After a few months, we'll take them back and assess any degradation, but we are confident that they will perform well."

The partners are so sure of the new design, they are already planning the marketing launch at the 'Automechanika' fair in Frankfurt (DE) in September 2000, an international showcase for petrol station forecourt suppliers.

As for potential sales figures, Mr Andersson points out that there are an estimated 1.5 to 1.6 million petrol pump nozzles in Western Europe alone, the valves have a projected lifetime of five years, and that they will sell for up to 45 each. "You can do the arithmetic yourself," he laughs, "and when you have, think of the North American and Asian markets. We could go into orbit."

 

   
Preventing petrol leaks
Tough requirements, tougher plastics
Towards commercialisation
   

Key data

Development of novel components is an important element of the Innovative Products, Processes and Organisation key action. This CRAFT project brought together a group of SMEs to develop a pan-European solution to petrol spillage at filling stations.

Project: Break-away valves (BRST-CT98-5242)

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