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Steven Camilleri: Motor Maniac

Dream Jobs 2008

4 min read

For a young engineer who used to sleep through math class, Steven Camilleri has certainly seen his life perk up. From In Motion Technologies' offices in Dandenong, a quiet suburb of Melbourne, Australia, he works on what he considers to be some of the most exciting technology in the world. He's been rebuilding one of the pillars of engineering--the common electric motor--and now he and his five-person research team are poised to see their superefficient, environmentally friendly device roll off production lines.

It all started when Camilleri was dozing through his course work as an undergraduate in electrical engineering at Northern Territory University in Darwin, Australia. Disappointed that the curriculum offered few opportunities to be creative, he delved wholeheartedly into outside projects--he made his own robots and joined the school's team to build a solar car. Along the way, he met Dean Patterson, a professor of electrical engineering at Northern Territory who was backing the solar car project, and he encountered the motor that would change his life.

”We'd built this freak motor, and it turned out everyone liked it,” recalls Patterson, an IEEE Fellow. ”We had some trouble with the electronics, and in 1996 Steven said he'd like to work on it and get it fixed. And he did!” A typical motor relies on brushes to make a mechanical connection between an electrical source and the rotating core. The ”freak motor,” designed to be more efficient and more reliable than ordinary motors, did away with brushes and instead rotated its permanent magnets and used power electronics to reverse the direction of the current's flow. ”The electronics needed to do a bit more than make the motor go. It needed to be a whole solar-car drive system,” Camilleri says. ”The system they had when I started had all sorts of efficiency, reliability, and packaging problems.”

This brushless dc motor is distinct because it produces flux in an axial direction, rather than radially, as is more common; also, the motor is flatter than its ordinary counterparts. This configuration is not new, but the engineering behind it is extremely tricky because everything--including improving its mechanical strength and setting its tolerances--must be figured out from scratch.

After getting his bachelor's degree in 1998, Camilleri began working on his master's in electrical engineering at Northern Territory. He took a job at the university's Centre for Energy Research, and with Patterson and another veteran solar racer named Byron Kennedy, he continued tinkering with the motor.

In 2001, the three engineers formed Northern Territory's first spin-off company, In Motion Technologies, or IMT, in hopes of commercializing their novel engine for use in electric vehicles. But they discovered that car companies were reluctant to take a chance with IMT's fancy new design. ”Everything we are doing is new--as in never been done or, sometimes, never even been tried,” Camilleri says. ”You get to rethink a lot of the paradigms, which does cause some friction with the old hands.” So the company instead contented itself with demonstration projects: an unmanned aircraft for NASA, a superefficient ceiling fan, a tidal turbine.

Their luck changed after they approached Avanti Bikes, based in Auckland, New Zealand, about incorporating their motor into an electric bicycle. ”It took going to a bicycle company, where they knew nothing about motors, for someone to say, ’Let's get this into production right away,' ” Camilleri says. Over the next six months, he and his colleagues tackled problems they hadn't previously considered, such as silencing the motor's noisy hum. They tried countless mechanical work-arounds before finally hitting on a solution: they drove a different current waveform through the engine.

Although Avanti made only 1000 of the bikes, priced at about AU $1500 each, the bicycles served as proof that the motors were reliable and could be built at an acceptable cost. This small success made the company much more attractive to potential investors, and the next steps became clearer. In 2006, Camilleri and his tight-knit team moved to Dandenong after Fasco, a large motor company based in Michigan, bought IMT.

Now, as a research-and-development manager at a large corporation, Camilleri finally has the connections and manufacturing capabilities he needs to push the motor onto the market in a significant way. He and his team have made a device that he says uses less material than a typical induction motor, is one-fifth the size of one, and handles variable speeds much better. The first applications will be in home appliances. Camilleri still hopes to see the motor used in electric vehicles someday, but he concedes that the time is not yet ripe. For now, he says, ”we're surviving on household pumps and fans.” They're not quite as sexy as cars, he admits, but making such mundane electric goods more efficient could cumulatively save a lot of energy and cut back on greenhouse-gas emissions. ”The whole point is to get these motors in production so that our work can make a difference,” he says.

Camilleri is so driven by the goal of perfecting his motor that his biggest hurdle is winding down at the end of a day. His solution is to do something ”180 degrees away from my day job.” For the last 10 years, that has meant studying Japanese. He also practices judo and is converting an engineless 1971 Volkswagen Beetle into an all-electric vehicle.

Just as he did in college, Camilleri still seeks out activities that keep him on his toes. ”A lot of engineering positions are more cookie-cutter, the same old, same old every day,” he notes. ”Give me leading edge every time. I don't know how they stay awake.”

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