Power Technique’s history

The Atlas Copco Group has been first in introducing several new types of portable compressors, with innovations going back over a century. Now, the Power Technique business area is on a journey to support the transition to a low-carbon society. This journey has been ongoing for over a decade, leading the transition away from diesel to electrification and beyond. Soon, the world’s first battery-driven portable compressor will be launched – while looking ahead to hydrogen.

Text by the Centre for Business History in Stockholm

Roadwork using power from a portable compressor.

Portable compressors have been around since the early 1900s.

Organizationally, the Power Technique business area was only born in 2017 after the company restructured its Construction Technique business area, following the announcement of the spin-off of the Group’s mining operations into Epiroc. However, Power Technique has century-old roots going back to both Atlas Copco’s compressor and mining businesses. The business area is now centered around air (portable compressors), power (generators) and flow (pumps), along with related products such as light towers and services, including equipment rental.

Gill Dhooghe has been involved in the Group’s portable compressor operations since 2006, first in sourcing and then as a project and team leader in R&D. He has now served as Vice President Research and Development of the Portable Air Division since 2016, leading the transition from diesel to electricity and onwards to exciting alternative fuel sources.

“The journey from diesel to more efficient and low carbon portable compressors started about ten years ago,” says Gill. “The foundation for this was laid by the groundbreaking work on perfecting  variable speed drive (VSD) technology by Atlas Copco, which goes back even further, some 30 years ago. I really enjoy telling the story of this exciting journey to people and appreciate how it gives us a mission orientation for all the core things we are working on today.”

Historical firsts in portable compressor technology

Using synergies with its strong market position and culture of innovation in stationary compressors, the Atlas Copco Group was the first to bring certain technological breakthroughs in portable compressors to market.

After beginning to make portable compressors in 1905, one early innovation was delivering the first mobile air compressor powered by an internal combustion engine in 1907. A generation or so later, the Group introduced the first completely air-cooled mobile diesel compressor in 1949. This was followed by the launch of the first mobile screw compressor in 1958.

Getting into the dewatering pump game

Given the clear synergies with portable generators, compressors and other power solutions, the Atlas Copco Group saw great potential in adding submersible pumps to its portfolio. The first step was the acquisition of Dynapac in 2007, which, along with other construction products, brought in the WEDA range of submersible pumps.

A decade or so later, although part of what used to be Dynapac was divested around the time the Power Technique business area was created, the Group still saw even more untapped potential in the area of pumps – and dewatering pumps in particular. With the acquisition of pump maker Varisco in 2016, the Group rapidly became a serious player in the global dewatering segment. In 2022 two acquisitions that further expanded the Group’s presence in pump technology was announced; Wangen, a German manufacturer of progressive cavity pumps used for transferring fluids mainly in the biogas and wastewater sectors, and LEWA, a leading manufacturer of diaphragm metering pumps, process pumps and complete metering systems

The transition away from diesel

The majority of applications for the Power Technique business area are in remote locations in the toughest ambient conditions, sometimes without access to electricity. As a result, diesel has been king for portable compressors, generators, and pumps for about a century. However, overcoming reliance on diesel was and is crucial for improving energy efficiency and enabling a low carbon society. 

This is why the Atlas Copco Group, being no stranger to bold initiatives, started exploring how to start replacing diesel in its portable air, flow, and power solutions about a decade ago. Fueling with HVO (hydrotreated vegetable oil) is one way to lower the carbon footprint and with greater access to electricity than in the past, electric-powered equipment has intensified the electrification trend in both industry and society. 

Some key electrification breakthroughs were ultimately made in generators, making Atlas Copco the first global generator manufacturer to provide a new highly efficient type of hybrid power concept. In late 2020, the ZenergiZe range of lithium-ion energy storage systems and the TwinPower generator series were both launched. 

By combining the ZenergiZe with a small generator, the hybrid power system uses renewable energy whenever possible while still ensuring continuous supply and drastically lower CO2 emissions. The TwinPower series supports sustainability by providing up to 40% lower fuel consumption and up to 80% lower NO2 emissions.  

Going electric with VSD in portable compressors

The most efficient electric-powered stationary compressors were variable speed drive (VSD) compressors, but nobody had discovered how to bring the enormous benefits of VSD to portable compressors. The journey to adapt VSD technology to rough outdoor conditions and other mobile needs was challenging but ultimately proved highly successful. In recent years, the Atlas Copco Group has launched a full VSD portable compressor portfolio covering most of Power Technique’s customer applications.

“I’m grateful to my two predecessors, Nicolas Englebert and Guy Laps, for nurturing the idea of VSD technology in portable compressors,” says Gill. “This laid the foundation for the technological revolution we are in the midst of today. Now, we are reaping the fruits of this as we can see that more and more customers are choosing our mobile VSD products due to their tremendous benefits in terms of total cost of ownership, noise, footprint, and emissions.”

World’s first battery-powered compressor

The transition from diesel to electricity was not the end of Atlas Copco’s journey to create more efficient and sustainable portable air, power, and flow solutions, but rather a key milestone. The next step was to explore the potential of alternative energy sources. This would be crucial for offering sustainable solutions for customers requiring autonomy where electricity is not available.

The engineers at the company have looked into using batteries, hydrogen, and other alternative fuels. Ultimately, it was determined that they would all be relevant but that batteries would be the first solution to provide the ideal combination of sustainability and autonomy in small compressors. As a result, the Atlas Copco Group is developing the world’s first battery-driven portable compressor. This innovation is scheduled to be launched in 2023 in a compact and modular concept, with exchangeable batteries and multiple autonomy variants.

“Electric-powered portable compressors were a nice achievement – but not enough,” says Gill. “As the market leader, we consider it our duty to drive and accelerate the transition to a low-carbon society in our market. If we don’t do it, nobody will. I’m very proud of each and everyone involved on the journey to create our new battery-driven portable compressor, but once again, we won’t stop there. We are also working on hydrogen and have built a fuel cell-driven prototype to better understand what’s possible with this exciting technology. I hope in the near future that we also will be able to fine-tune and commercialize hydrogen in compressors, since that will bring us one step further in offering low-carbon solutions to the market.”