Ohio State University: One Cog in a More Efficient Wheel

Every generation has its distinguishing threats. For the Silent Generation, it was the Great Depression. Baby Boomers grew up under the shadow of a mushroom cloud and a mounting Cold War, which also helped define the world Generation X was born into. Today's Millennials face global warming and terrorism, not to mention more repetitive themes of a stagnant economy, rising oil prices, spiking inflation and so on.

Depressing, yes, but every generation has overcome its challenges, and ours should be no different. Look closely, and many of the problems we face today have a common thread: vehicles that run on petroleum-derived fuels. At least one of our generation's challenges is to lessen our dependence on oil.

Ohio State University's entry in Challenge X.

Ohio State University's entry in Challenge X.

Experts across the country — automotive enterprises, technology firms, the government — are chipping away at this problem, but it's in universities that our generation can make its mark. Take, for example, Ohio State University. The largest college in the country, it has a strong history in automobile research, spanning back a century when it helped develop the original Jeep. Today, OSU is working on the world's fastest hydrogen car, a plug-in hybrid initiative and a biodiesel hybrid, just to name a few.

After Michigan, Ohio employs the most people in the automotive industry, and it's the second largest manufacturer of automobiles in the U.S. That's why Giorgio Rizzoni, a professor of mechanical and electrical engineering at the university, said the school needs to be involved in and aware of what's happening in this vital industry.

Already a chief supplier of engineers to the automotive industry, OSU set up a dedicated facility for automobile research in 1991. Seventeen years later, the Center for Automotive Research has hundreds of undergraduate students and about 50 graduate students working on projects that include future propulsion systems (i.e. hybrids), autonomous or intelligent vehicle systems, hydrogen refueling stations, and the more mundane but important work of refining existing combustion technologies.

As the director of CAR, Rizzoni has helped the 35,000-square-foot facility become a nearly self-funded unit.

"Nearly 95 percent of our funding comes from external sources," he said. "We're currently working on 70 to 80 projects contracted from 25 to 30 different sponsors."

With sponsors like GM, Ford, Hyundai and the U.S. Army, the research going on at CAR isn't merely theoretical; it produces results that may end up in your car somewhere down the line.

The team behind OSU's Challenge X car.

The team behind OSU's Challenge X car.

To prove the school's chops and recruit undergrads to join CAR, the Buckeyes are involved in several academic-based competitions, including the recent Challenge X.

Challenge X, sponsored by GM and the Department of Energy, is a competition based on improving fuel economy and lowering vehicle emissions without inhibiting comfort or performance. Participants' innovations are integrated into a regular Chevy Equinox. CAR's submission was a 1.9-liter direct-injected turbo biodiesel engine with a belted alternator starter hybrid system (similar to what's found in the Malibu Hybrid) and a rear electric motor. The all-wheel-drive hybrid delivered more than 30 mpg in a crossover that typically gets around18 mpg.

John Neal, a graduate student at OSU and a Challenge X participant, said the biodiesel hybrid powertrain made the most sense.

"The torque of the diesel can come in quite handy if you're pulling a trailer; a small turbo gasoline engine will have to rely too heavily on battery power during an extended hill climb, resulting in a weakened overall performance," Neal said.

Seventeen universities participated in the competition, which featured many takes on how to propel the vehicle, ranging from fuel cells to plug-in hybrid powertrains. Mississippi State earned first place, and OSU came in third. Mississippi State opted for the same engine as OSU, but without the belted alternator starter in front. It still used an electric motor to power the back wheels, but had a six-speed manual transmission and a traditional diesel-emission filtration system.

Neal credited MSU with a great entry, but argued that OSU's product was more consumer-friendly, with its six-speed automatic and a nitrogen-oxide trap that doesn't need replacing, similar to Honda's clean-diesel technology (conventional urea-injected traps need regular replacing). This helps reduce the difference between gasoline and diesel engines, making them more acceptable to average consumers.

He's not the only one who thought OSU had a strong entry; GM and the DOE invited the school to participate in the more difficult EcoCAR challenge, in which teams re-engineered a 2009 Saturn Vue to make it more fuel-efficient. This time, all teams had to use an automatic transmission.

Neal said OSU's acceptance into EcoCAR was a "validation of how good our students, staff, faculty, facilities and engineering program really are."

GM's Cindy Svestka, manager of the Milford Proving Grounds where GM tests future vehicles, said that's true of all the competing teams; the company hired 50 students who participated in Challenge X, both as interns and as full-time employees.

The OSU team proved its worth at the EcoCAR competition in June 2009. Not only did it win first place overall, it also won other top honors for its report and presentation. This time, Mississippi came in third place, with the University of Victoria, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Waterloo also in the top five.

In addition to increasing the efficiency of gas-powered vehicles, CAR has challenged itself with making progress in the field of hydrogen technology, and how better to do that than by setting a land-speed record?

In the summer of 2008, students prepared a 700-plus-horsepower hydrogen-electric vehicle called the Buckeye Bullet 2 for an official run at the Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah. The original Buckeye Bullet was purely battery-operated and able to achieve an electric land-speed record of 315 mph. Although it fell short of expectations, the Buckeye Bullet hit an impressive 224 mph on the Flats.

Of course, while fuel-cell cars were once the darling of the automotive industry, they've lost some of their luster recently. Fortunately for CAR, its pragmatic researchers didn't put all their eggs in one basket. A new initiative called Sustainable Mobility Advanced Research Team will focus on developing plug-in gas-electric hybrid vehicles, all-electric vehicles and intelligent charging systems.

Many people at CAR say the intelligent charging aspect is of utmost importance because, without it, electric vehicles simply won't work.

"It takes one kilowatt of electricity to charge a [typical] hybrid car for nine hours," Neal said. "To put that in perspective, the Niagara Falls plant, which provides 25 percent of [New York's] energy needs, would only be able to charge about two and a half million cars with its biggest power source."

There are more than 10 million vehicles registered in New York.

In 2008, CAR and OSU organized a consortium of companies to help build an electric test bed throughout Columbus, Ohio, installing a plug-in grid and offering incentives for "smart" use of electricity, like charging during off-peak hours. The program will test the life cycle, vehicle-energy management and integration into a conventional car of plug-in car batteries. CAR will convert regular vehicles into plug-in electric vehicles to plug in around town as part of the experiment.

The consortium is also looking to further develop a plug-in grid based around renewable energy, and will study governmental and regulatory issues involving plug-in electric cars. Rizzoni predicts that Columbus will soon be home to the largest plug-in electric test bed outside California.

While schools like OSU have their eyes trained on the nation's vehicular future, the fact remains that the vast majority of the more than 250 million vehicles in the U.S. right now remain dependant on gasoline. The recent climb in gas prices, though, has begun to shift American driving habits.

Neal said the solution to purging U.S. oil dependency will not be one new technology that will miraculously solve all our problems, but it will come through a future based on what he called a "portfolio of solutions that are regional, geographical and climate-based."

Indeed, solutions for past threats like the Great Depression and Cold War were multipronged approaches, none of which were painless or quick. They were time-consuming, costly and required generous amounts of heavy lifting from multiple players to solve. The distinguishing threat of our time may remain a daunting one, but OSU and schools like it prove the lifting is already well under way.

© Cars.com 6/2/11