Michigan Tech Receives $1.5 Million Grant for Developing Flex-Fuel Hybrid Technologies

By Marcia Goodrich | Published

The Michigan Public Service Commission has awarded a team of Michigan Technological University researchers $1.5 million to develop technologies for flex-fuel hybrid vehicles.

The grant builds on over $1 million in support from General Motors, Sensors Inc. of Saline, Argonne National Laboratory's Transportation Technology R&D Center and Michigan Tech.

"There is no flex-fuel hybrid available, partly because it's a big challenge to meet emissions standards," said lead investigator Jeff Naber, an associate professor of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics and director of Michigan Tech's Advanced Power Systems Research Center.

Flex-fuel engines can burn anything from pure gasoline to E85--a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gas. The properties of the two fuels vary tremendously, creating daunting engineering challenges. Ethanol contains only 63 percent of the stored energy of gasoline and requires about three times the energy to vaporize. Straight gasoline, however, has a much lower octane rating and can cause engine knock in a high-performance engine that would run smoothly on ethanol.

If engines can't adapt to these very different fuels, emissions rise and mileage falls, Naber said. Starting and stopping the engine repeatedly makes this problem worse, and that's just what hybrid engines do many times during a single trip, whenever the vehicle switches from battery to internal combustion and back again.

To address the problem, the researchers will work to optimize numerous aspects of the powertrain design and control, including the fuel and combustion systems.

As part of the project, the team aims to design and build an efficient, four-cylinder, hybrid engine with a variable compression ratio that can run on flex-fuel and meet the US EPA's tough emissions standards, something that no hybrid has ever done. They will also develop a computer model that will allow engineers to simulate the factors involved in designing efficient, clean-running, flex-fuel hybrid engines.

"We look forward to an active exchange of expertise and know-how through this program," said Thomas Wallner, principal investigator in Argonne's Engines and Emissions Group. "Advanced instrumentation will be developed to further our knowledge base on the use of alternative fuels in engines." As part of the collaboration, Michigan Tech students will visit Argonne to conduct research.

Ultimately, the technologies will be used by General Motors to manufacture energy-efficient vehicles that meet the federal government's 2020 CAFE emissions standards.

Co-investigators on the project are Jay Meldrum, director of the Keweenaw Research Center; Donna Michalek and John Beard, associate professors of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics; Seong-Young Lee, Scott Miers and Abhijit Mukherjee, assistant professors of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics; and Jeremy Worm, staff engineer of the Advanced Power Systems Research Center, which is directed by Naber.

The team is part of Michigan Tech's Wood to Wheels program in the Sustainable Futures Institute, a forest-to-tailpipe research and education initiative to improve the entire lifecycle of bioenergy production and utilization from Michigan's abundant forest resources.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.