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Innovation from Oxford University could revolutionise utilities industries

06 May 2016

One Oxford-based company is set to pique the interest of engineers in a number of industries, with the launch of two highly-innovative pressure regulation valves.

Oxford Flow Regulator

Oxford Flow, a spin-out company from the University of Oxford, launched its patented pressure regulation valve series; these include the IHF series Oxford regulator for Gas, IP series Oxford PRV for water, IM series high pressure wafer type regulator for gas or liquid and the IHP series wafer type high-pressure regulator for all gases.

In potentially revolutionising the way in which the flow of pressure is regulated, these two new valves have the potential to improve both performance and profit-margins for the many industries relying on accurate flow regulation in order to carry out their work. 

A need for change

Innovation in the construction of pressure control valves is long overdue. While the 20th century nurtured new technologies that have utterly transformed the way we live, work and play, in some areas, despite the best efforts of some of the finest engineering minds on the planet, progress has remained defiantly static. 

One such area is pressure control, which has barely seen any truly transformative innovation since 1885, when the redoubtable Edwin Bryan Donkin submitted a patent declaring that he had “invented certain new and useful improvements in valves of regulating the flow of gas in mains and other passages”. Since then, not a lot has happened. 

The unreliability of current methods of pressure control is something which has been quietly disrupting the operation of many industries for many years. 

This is because the precise control of the flow of gases and fluids is the backbone of many industrial and manufacturing processes. Whether the matter in question is water, compressed air, rare gases, oil or other chemicals, pinpoint precision over flow control is key to process efficiency and safety. Yet despite this, the means of control has stayed the same, even as the demands made on pressure control valves have changed.  

It was this lack of innovation that was acting as a stumbling block for Oxford University’s Professor Tom Povey in the course of his research in the Osney Thermo-Fluids Laboratory. While conducting R&D into various applications, such as gas turbines and jet engines, he found his avenues of research frequently blocked by the fact that even the market-leading gas pressure regulators he was using were not capable of handling the extremely high pressures and flows that the tests he was carrying out required.

Professor Povey – who is also the author of educational Professor Povey’s Perplexing Problems and the inventor of the energy-saving Flare Pan – decided to try to tackle the issue himself. Unlike so many of his peers that had tried to solve the problem before him, his solution worked. 

What makes the Oxford regulator so significant for industry is the fact that its design makes the complex and failure-prone diaphragm arrangements found in other regulator designs redundant. This is because it replaces the diaphragm that is central to the function of conventional valves with a direct sensing piston actuator.

In a typical regulator, the diaphragm constantly modulates as it controls pressure, and therefore needs to be flexible in order to provide accurate control. This flexibility is normally provided by a limited range of elastomers, which, while they allow for the necessary modulation required are prone to fatigue, erosion and embrittlement. It is this that leads to the frequent issue of typical flow regulators failing in service and requiring frequent - and often expensive - replacement. 

Oxford Flow’s patented piston system means that the elastomers which are the Achilles’ heel of the standard flow regulator are eliminated, greatly expanding the lifespan of the valve. 

Tom Povey and his compact, lightweight flow regulator

Instead, one side of the piston is exposed to downstream pipeline pressure while the other side is balanced against a pressure cavity controlled by a pilot regulator. The sleeved piston actuator operates over an optimised feed-hole configuration to provide precise, stable control across the entire operating range. During operation, the piston moves inward, reducing the size of the cavity when the downstream pipeline pressure exceeds that within the pressure cavity set by the pilot regulator. 

The movement of the piston actuator progressively covers the feed holes, reducing the flow rate to maintain a stable downstream pressure. When demand increases, the downstream pressure falls below that set by the pilot and the reverse operation occurs; the cavity expands, as the pilot feeds it, uncovering the feed holes, which increases flow and maintains a stable downstream pressure. 

Multiple benefits

After extensive benchmarking against current market-leading gas pressure regulators, it was apparent that the technology created by Oxford Flow either matches or exceeds existing designs across all performance parameters. 

Testing revealed that the regulator’s innovative design also brings a host of other benefits, including reduced hunting, lower noise emissions, minimised flow turbulence and reduced minimum pressure head-drop. 

The lightweight design also weighs less than a quarter of that of traditional PRVs. This combined with its small installation footprint and the fact that it will need to be replaced less often than comparable devices means that it can help operation across gas, water and process industries, dramatically reduce capital and operational expenditure without sacrificing performance or reliability. 

With the benefits of the valve clearly apparent, the model was patented and commercialised, and two versions tailored to specific markets released: the IHF series Oxford regulator for gas and IP series Oxford PRV for water to market. 

Both are carefully fine-tuned to the needs of the markets they serve. For example, the IP series Oxford PRV for water combines a diminutive size and significantly reduced weight with increased reliability and the ability to be manufactured using many different materials including WRAS approved polymers. This enables operators to minimise trench access and the associated displaced earth to landfill. Similarly, another of Oxford Flow’s range, the IM series Oxford regulator offers ultra-high flow capacity and accuracy for gas and fluid applications. Its use saves space because it can fit neatly between standard flanges in a wafer-type installation. 

Discussing the Oxford PRV, Christopher Leonard, Business Development Director said: “As virtually all industries struggle to find ways of doing more, for less, inventions like this valve have the potential to make a huge impact.  

“Existing valves are perfectly serviceable, but the use of elastomers to move the diaphragm has always been their fatal flaw. This means that costs are all pushed up by the need for regular inspection, maintenance and replacement. 

“By avoiding the need for these elastomers, Oxford Flow has created something that will be of interest to the many industries that require the precise controlled flow of liquids and gases.” 

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