CORVALLIS - Engineering expertise and sophisticated facilities at Oregon State University are helping to develop one of the most exciting new trends in automotive technology since the Model T.
The future of automotive travel, experts say, may soon move away from the all-gasoline or diesel powered engines that have run cars and trucks for most of the past century. What's evolving, and already on the market by some manufacturers, is a new breed of hybrid vehicles that use both gas-powered and electric motors to almost triple their fuel efficiency to as much as 80 miles-per-gallon.
The cars themselves are also incorporating more electronic technologies instead of the belts and carburetors of the past - and helping this minor revolution to proceed is the sophisticated Motor Systems Resource Facility at OSU, which is already working with one of the world's largest automotive manufacturers.
"Some people thought that the next generation of automobiles would be all-electric," said Alan Wallace, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at OSU. "But gasoline is what's available, it's easily portable and the energy stored in a gallon of gas is incredible. So the goal of the new technology is to take those advantages and make gas-powered automobiles far more efficient than ever before."
This can be done, Wallace said, by having new types of generators, batteries, electric motors and traditional gas engines all working together to keep energy use down to a minimum while still providing the variable power needed for driving - which may range from coasting down a city street to pulling a trailer up the side of a mountain.
According to Wallace and other experts, the real problem with older technology is that gas engines had to be "oversized" to produce the maximum amounts of power needed during peak demands. But 95 percent of the time that large engine is being used at less than its capacity, which is inefficient.
"Gas engines are traditionally only about 30 percent efficient, with much of the energy wasted as heat or not needed for normal driving demands," Wallace said. "But if you can store energy in a battery and then use a 90 percent efficient electric motor to deliver extra power only when it's needed, you enable the use of a much smaller gas engine in the automobile."
That's exactly what the new hybrid cars do, including one manufactured by Honda that just hit the market in the United States. They have small gas engines that are adequate for the task when driving slowly or cruising, and during that time can also run a generator to keep the battery charged up.
Then, when a big hill looms or the car needs to quickly accelerate, a strong electric motor kicks in to give it the extra needed power. And there are still more advantages, not the least of which is called "regenerative braking." Traditional brakes waste power, but with the new systems the process of slowing the car can be used as a way to turn the motor into a generator and re-capture energy.
"This is clearly a trend of our automotive future, and within five to 10 years, I expect a sizeable minority of our cars will use these new technologies," Wallace said.
The process of perfecting that technology is where OSU's $1 million motor and power electronics testing facility comes in, a sophisticated package of high-power equipment and instrumentation developed in 1995.
It was originally funded by the Bonneville Power Administration and the Electric Power Research Institute to take advantage of the university's traditional research strength in this field of study, and now ranks as the largest and most capable university facility of its type in the nation.
The self-supporting laboratory is widely used by industry; can test large motors, their drives and controllers up to 300 horsepower; and has been used on everything from generators for high-power windmills to an innovative permanent magnet coupling system and power quality investigations.
"We can test motors and generators for their compliance to specifications, energy efficiency, performance response and other factors," Wallace said. "That's what we're doing right now with a generator developed by Ford Motor Co., which is now planning the next generation of the new hybrid electric cars. Those tests should soon be complete and Ford officials are very pleased with the progress we've made."
Such tests, Wallace said, are also opening up invaluable educational opportunities for OSU's undergraduate and graduate engineering students, who will soon hit employment markets with an unusually high level of skills and real-world experience in some of the most innovative technologies used in several major industries.
"Employers are always on the lookout for graduates who have industry-relevant experience and the activities in our lab provide just that," Wallace said.
The costs for the new hybrid vehicles are presently somewhat higher than cars produced with conventional gasoline engines, experts say, but they will probably come down with mass production and are already competitive with traditional cars when the fuel savings are considered.
OSU's involvement with these technologies may continue to expand in the future as this aspect of the automotive industry grows in importance, Wallace said.