A hybridized world

Aug 31, 2006

Ford Motor Co. donated two hybrid SUVs to Kettering for undergraduate teaching and research purposes that focus on hybrid technology and the hybridization of cars and trucks.

Once, Earth was a lush, temperate meadow. But from the first moment man created fire, human emissions have in some way negatively impacted our environment.

For most readers, this is old news. Global warming has become more intense than computer simulation models have realistically predicted, particularly in the last two years. Continental ice shelves are melting at rates profoundly swifter than originally estimated by scientists. Various types of water and forest species are adapting to their dwindling environments in unimaginable ways, or else dying out completely. Like those species, we will either learn to live with difficult changes in our environment or heat up until we shrivel like strips of bacon in a frying pan.

Is it too late to slow down global warming? Can world societies and governments do more to curtail industrial emissions?

Well, yes, lots could be done, but it would cost money and require a dramatic shift in our cultural, political and economic realities. As the various quarters of our world continue to debate the significance and impact of global warming, the public is growing more concerned with each new published report describing a future of increasingly hotter heat waves and volatile weather patterns. Perhaps this is why many companies, including automotive firms, are banking on growing consumer concern over the environment as a potential marketing opportunity by developing products such as cars that produce fewer emissions.

Recently, Ford Motor Co. donated two hybrid Ford Escape SUVs to Kettering University for the purpose of providing teaching and research opportunities to faculty and students. Although Kettering offers courses in hybrid technology and alternative fuels, these vehicles are the first actual hybrid, fully functional examples made available to the institution and represent a unique teaching and research opportunity, said Dr. Jim Gover, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and one of the primary faculty members who will lead students in examining these vehicles.

A number of key individuals helped secure these SUVs, including Dr. Mark Wicks, head of the ECE Dept., and Robert Mitchell, director of Continuing Education, who also serves on the Kettering/Ford Partnership team. According to Mitchell, the effort to bring these hybrids to Kettering for study represents an "exceptional, collaborative cross-functional team effort and an example of relationship management."

Although Mitchell is quick to recognize the work of many people in obtaining these vehicles-specifically Bob Nichols, vice president of Enrollment Management, and Tammy Loud, executive director of Cooperative Education and Career Services-his efforts in working with Ford executives were instrumental. He worked directly with Todd Bennett of the Ford Vehicle Controls Group and John Caris, manager of Chassis Computer Aided Engineering. Bennett and John Caris are also members of the Kettering/Ford Partnership team.

"Within a day of contacting our Ford partners, I received five emails from people at the company offering to provide whatever assistance was needed to get this request moving. Then, within 18 hours, we had the vehicles identified and over the next few weeks, completed the paperwork to receive the SUVs," Mitchell said.

Now that the hybrids are on campus, Gover said that faculty have many plans for them in terms of research. Some of the major projects planned for Gover's EE 524: Fuel Cell System Integration and Packaging course include studying the power electronics packages in each vehicle and how they are designed electrically and thermally for hybrid applications. This work requires the disassembly of one of the vehicles to expose the hybrid drive train, battery, high voltage cables, power inverters, power converter, CVT and electric machines. Additionally, one SUV will remain intact to allow Dr. Craig Hoff, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering (ME), and other faculty, staff and students to test it on a dynamometer to examine various electrical, thermal and mechanical phenomena.

"Once we have it on the stand, we can then observe, record and measure its operation," Gover explained. Students in his EE 524 course are using the Ford power electronics designs developed by Mitsubishi and TDK as a guide in designing a hybrid option for the Toyota Camry. They will employ a software simulation program called Advisor created by the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado to conduct systems design and analysis. In addition, EE students are designing the power electronics while ME students are designing the cooling system for the power electronics. Gover said the hybrid power train work represents an excellent example for students of how the interdisciplinary interaction between electrical and mechanical engineering in power electronics takes place.

One particular area that Gover would also like to focus on in the future includes the electromagnetic fields generated by the power electronics in these hybrids.

"With almost 100 kilowatts of electric power, the power electronics in these vehicles generate a great deal of noise," Gover said. "One of the planned projects is to measure the electromagnetic fields, remove various connections and shields, identify the sources of the noise and see what effect this has. Then we will see if the noise can be eliminated through circuit design rather than through shielding."

But how will this potentially help auto makers manufacturing better, more efficient, less noisy and costly hybrid vehicles?

To begin with, Gover said that most car manufacturers that produce hybrid vehicles shield electrical and electronics components, which involves expensive plastics and other materials, costs that are often passed on to the consumer. Gover's intentions are to have students engage in a semester-long project to evaluate other less expensive materials to shield electrical and electronics components, such as wiring harnesses, to reduce the amount of noise generated by the electric power system.

Beyond this, he said students will also examine the cost of hybridizing a vehicle, such as the Toyota Camry. This entails examining an economic model that includes cost savings in fuel for hybrid vehicles against the additional cost of purchasing a hybrid. Future work will include Kettering students analyzing and developing new hybrid design ideas that could be considerable improvements above the current designs used by automakers today.

"The Escape hybrid licenses 21 patents owned by Toyota," Gover said. "It's imperative that U.S. companies develop hybrid drive trains that are designed and manufactured in the U.S.," he added. At the present time, given Toyota's experience with the highly acclaimed Prius-a purely hybrid vehicle-the company has the capability of taking a traditional commercial vehicle, like the Camry, and turn it into a hybrid. "I'm also looking forward to learning more about the Camry's hybrid drive train," Gover said.

Since hybrids typically cost in excess of several thousand dollars above a traditional vehicle, faculty and students will also investigate whether or not the cost savings achieved by using a hybrid justify the additional cost to purchase this type of vehicle. Current hybrids like the Escape are about 20 percent over the base vehicle cost. But is it more economical for a family to purchase a standard vehicle at a lower price and pay a premium in gas costs or pay the front end cost and purchase hybrid, especially since the battery life for a hybrid currently does not exceed more than 100,000 miles?

"Cost and its relationship to fuel expenses and tax rebates are just a few of the many questions we will continue to examine," Gover said, adding that students are extremely excited about the opportunity to examine these vehicles in a comprehensive manner. For the current term, the students are leading the study into these questions as a term project and Gover finds that he does not have to do much to encourage them: "They are enthusiastic about the research and they also know this sort of endeavor will put them in a great position for professional engineering careers once they graduate," he concluded.

And while the students find their curiosity ultimately piqued by this project and are mesmerized by the potential marketing opportunity of hybrid power, their current and future efforts as engineers working with this alternative power could help limit the impact of man-made emissions on our environment in a vicarious way.

To learn more about this research, contact Dr. Jim Gover, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, at (810) 762-5643.

Written by Gary J. Erwin
(810) 762-9538