Tech Students, Research Expertise Impress Automakers

LD Engine Consortium
LD Engine Consortium
Jim Walker of General Motors talks with PhD student Xiucheng (Sheldon) Zhu about the work he is doing for the Advanced LD Engine Consortium.

It’s been a year since Michigan Tech’s Advanced Power System Research Center, known as APS LABS, formed a new partnership with auto industry leaders to work on mutually beneficial engine research projects. 

They call their partnership the Advanced Light Duty Engine Consortium.   

Each of the three initial partners—General Motors, BorgWarner, and FCA—contributed $50,000 to the consortium the first year. They plan to provide that support annually.  They also contributed ideas for research projects—40 of them in fact.  Those 40 concepts went through a process by which the consortium members, prioritized, ranked, and ultimately voted on which concepts would have the biggest impact on the industry. Five projects were selected for year one.

During the consortium’s first year, projects included assessment of instrumentation used for combustion analysis, advanced ignition studies, development of best practices for engine cylinder pressure analysis, advanced boosted engine cycle and a study of increased in-cylinder flow and their impact on ignition.  Year one projects are now complete, and the consortium has already decided what will be worked on in year two, including a project  studying novel approaches for vehicle cold-start emissions reduction.  

On every project, the members found Michigan Tech’s expertise to be particularly helpful.  “The research results will be of value to our company,” said Richard S. Davis, a technical fellow for spark ignition engines at GM.” “One project resulted in an innovative approach to assessing combustion stability that we can apply to other aspects of our work,” Davis noted.

In addition to the research findings, Tech’s industry partners discovered a special side benefit.

Automakers Find Student Talent

“It has been extremely valuable getting to know the students,” said James W. Walker, lead dyno development engineer for gas engines at GM.  “The potential for recruitment of interns, co-ops and full-time employees is outstanding.”   

Chris Cowland, director of advanced and SRT Powertrain for FCA US, explained: “Partnerships with universities give FCA the unique opportunity to work directly with the engineering students who are training to become the engineers of tomorrow.  It allows us to couple their education directly to the technical challenges that the automotive industry faces and leverage new and novel approaches to solving them. One of the big challenges for our future is the availability of high class engineering talent, and programs such as these allow the students to interact directly with our engineers, hopefully giving them a first-hand insight to their future career and enabling them to hit the ground running when they enter the industry.” 

Cowland went on to say:  “The greatest benefit from participating in this consortium has been joining forces with our industry peers and academia to carry out research and development projects that are mutually beneficial.  At the core of this team is the Michigan Tech APS Labs made up of staff, students and facilities specializing in automotive propulsion systems. The labs contain some particularly advanced, specialized equipment which allows us to better understand some of the complex phenomena occurring in combustion engines.”

Chris Thomas, vice president and chief technology officer at BorgWarner, said: “In today’s automotive industry, collaboration is driving new innovations and exciting advancements in engine efficiency. This consortium gives university students an opportunity to join the team by performing valuable research to help solve real-world challenges. We believe our investment in these targeted projects not only advances technology, but gives these future engineers valuable experience that will help propel the industry forward. We are very pleased with the results.”

It’s not that common for companies in the highly competitive auto industry to collaborate on research.  But all three companies couldn’t be more pleased with the results.  “I was impressed by the effort that Jeff (Naber) and Jeremy (Worm) put into their work with the students,” Davis said.  “But I worked with Jeremy at GM, so I expected that.” Walker agreed. “We know the type of people Jeff and Jeremy are, so we weren’t surprised,” he said. 

Engineering Technologies Advancing

Naber, the director of APS LABS, commented: “We are really in a golden era of advancements in engine technologies. We have reduced toxic emissions to near-zero levels, have seen significant increase in output to 150 kilowatts per liter and have spark-ignition engines in production exceeding 40 percent efficiency. With continued research and development and taking things such as those under investigation in the consortium, there is no doubt that we will significantly improve beyond these.”

Worm noted: “I heard from every single company representative who attended the meeting that they were very impressed.” Worm is a research engineer at APS LABS and coordinator of the consortium.  “They said our facilities are world-class, and our people are too.

“The participation at every level, from University administrators to multiple department chairs, the Vice President for Research’s office and industry relations representatives, really shows Michigan Tech’s commitment to research, especially in mobility,” he added.

When asked what’s next, Worm said: “The consortium has chosen some really exciting projects for year two, and we are already well into those.  From an organizational perspective, with the first year behind us, and with it being a success, it’s time to bring on a few more members.  As we move through year two, we want to add one more automaker, one more Tier 1, and a fuel or additive company. The internal combustion engine is really a very solid technology, especially in mobile applications, and with room for continual improvement. I’ve always been excited about engine research.  But watching this group come together is something truly spectacular.  Some of the world’s foremost experts in combustion engine technology sharing ideas with a common goal—who knows what’s next.”


Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.