Gearing up

MSU drives research for tomorrow’s cars

Someday everyone will drive cars built with materials that didn’t exist when their parents were on the road.

Someday everyone will drive cars that run on electricity—or gas produced with natural products—and get 55 miles per gallon or better.

And when that day comes, Michigan State University will have played a role in getting there.

In the auto zone

In Michigan, the birthplace of the automotive industry, names like Ford, Chrysler and Olds roll off the tongue like rain off a T-Bird’s wax job.

So it’s only fitting that MSU, nestled in the midst of car country, is among the nation’s leaders in auto-related research. The university receives millions of dollars in research grants every year that are used to develop better cars and the fuel that keeps them running. In addition, there are dozens of faculty from a variety of colleges who conduct research on auto-related matters.

One of those is Harold Schock. As a boy growing up on a farm in Michigan’s Thumb region, Schock spent many hours tweaking and tuning the family tractor. Today, Schock is director of MSU’s Energy and Automotive Research Laboratory (EARL), an operation that does a lot more than tweak and tune.

Opened for business in 2007, EARL is made up of more than 30,000 square feet of space, space that is used to study nearly every aspect of the automobile, from bumper to bumper.

From developing a new technique for measuring the mixing of air and fuel in engines to building next-generation prototype engines and batteries to creating cutting-edge composite materials that make vehicles lighter and safer, EARL is on the road to making new and better automotive technologies a reality.

“We really operate a wide spectrum, from basic numerical modeling to, in one case, designing and building a prototype, multicylinder engine,” Schock says. “We have the capability to go from paper models all the way to engines that will go into a car.”

The stuff of lighter, safer cars

If in the not-too-distant future cars are to use less energy and help reduce our carbon footprint, they are going to have to weigh less. This is being accomplished in part by the increased use of leading-edge composite materials.

“Automotive components that used to be made out of steel are now made from composites,” says Nicholas Gianaris, director of MSU’s Composite Vehicle Research Center (CVRC), a 14,000-square-foot facility that is part of the University Corporate Research Park, a 115-acre site adjacent to the southwest corner of MSU’s campus.

Simply put, composites are made of multiple materials combined in a way that improves performance. In the case of autos, the materials can make for a lighter, yet safer, car.

And while composites are generally used for the car body, they can enhance a vehicle in other ways as well. For example, CVRC researchers are looking into ways to embed in cars lightweight sensors that can warn a driver of impending danger.

“It’s called multifunctional material,” Gianaris says. “If I can use structural materials that give me data about the health of the vehicle and reduce the weight of the car, that’s a win–win.”

That combination is extremely important these days as, yes, cars are getting smarter but also heavier. “To get that data, you have to use bigger alternators, bigger batteries,” he says. “All these things add a lot more weight to a vehicle.”

Much of the center’s work has military applications as well. Work is ongoing to make military vehicles as safe as possible, particularly in the development of materials that can be used on the underside of a vehicle to make it more resistant to improvised explosive devices.

Running on empty?
Not even close

The vast majority of cars now run on gasoline. Currently, nearly all gasoline is produced from oil. It’s estimated that the world uses about four billion tons of oil every year. One of the most viable alternatives to fuels produced from oil is biofuels–gas made mostly from plant materials.

MSU is among an elite group of American universities recognized for its work in the area of biofuels. Many Spartan researchers—ranging from engineers to chemists to agriculture experts—spend their days looking for better ways to turn plants that aren’t used for food into fuel for cars.

One of those researchers is Bruce Dale, MSU University Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering and materials science. Dale is focused on making much larger amounts of ethanol—fuel made from corn grain that accounts for about 10 percent of the gas currently used in cars—from corn stover and other nonfood crop residues and purpose-grown energy crops referred to collectively as “cellulosic biomass.”

There are problems with corn stover, fuzzy cellulosic biomass that is unstable and decays when wet. It’s also difficult to transport and it’s dusty—therefore prone to exploding. But Dale and his colleagues have come up with a way to turn that problematic material into dense, stable pellets that are easier to transport safely.

Dale uses a method he developed known as AFEX—ammonia fiber expansion—which involves taking cellulosic biomass materials like corn stover and treating them with hot, concentrated ammonia. The AFEX treatment prepares the biomass for conversion to sugars and then to fuels, and it also makes pelleting the biomass a lot easier and less expensive.

“When it comes to biofuels, logistics issues are huge,” Dale says. “If we’re going to increase our use of biofuels made from cellulosic biomass, we have to move around enormous amounts of stuff. And that‘s not going to happen with this stuff in its unstable, fluffy, dusty form. That’s why the ability to easily make pellets from AFEX-treated biomass is so important.”

Dale’s basic science research is done as part of the work of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), a collaborative effort with the University of Wisconsin that is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Its mission: conduct basic research that leads to the large-scale production of cellulosic biofuels. Dale’s efforts to produce biomass pellets are done in close collaboration with MBI International—a biotechnology company and a subsidiary of the Michigan State University Foundation—which is seeking to commercialize the AFEX process.

Dale says the GLBRC focuses on four areas: the plants used to produce biofuel, which can be anything from corn stover to switch grass to straw; the “deconstruction” of the plants, the process by which sugars are produced for conversion to fuels; the conversion of those sugars to fuels; and sustainability, which Dale calls the triple bottom line of “people, planet and profit.”

“Sustainable systems need to meet human needs,” he says. “They need to meet the needs of the planet. And they need to meet the financial requirements of the organizations that form the system. That is a big challenge—one we have not really dealt with in the past.”

A well-oiled machine

Working together like members of a pit crew at Michigan International Speedway, MSU and its sister research schools—the University of Michigan and Wayne State University—have come together to power the state’s resurgent automotive industry.

According to a report issued in 2012 by the East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group, the universities, which together form the University Research Corridor (URC), play a direct role in auto industry innovation by spending $60 million of their research and development dollars annually on auto-related research and development. Between fiscal years 2007 and 2011, the URC universities spent $300 million on more than 1,400 automotive projects. Nearly two-thirds of this research was funded by federal and state governmental agencies.

The report also notes that private industry funded 28 percent of all auto research at the URC universities within the last five years, which is nine times the average share of industry funding for all university research and development at these institutions.

In addition, the three URC universities graduate more than 3,600 science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, graduates annually.

The automotive world’s Big Three—General Motors, Ford and Chrysler—continue to be among the largest employers of MSU alumni, consistently landing in the top 25 of Spartan employers.

Historically, the auto/manufacturing sector has employed more than 8 percent of MSU graduates. Recently, however, that number has risen into the 11 percent to 12 percent range.

“This shows the importance of the work we are doing here,” says EARL Director Harold Schock. “There is more demand for good engineers now than in the whole 25 years I’ve been at Michigan State.”

Building better cars one piece at a time

MSU’s Energy and Automotive Research Laboratory (EARL) conducts a trunkful of research that helps make our vehicles safer and more energy efficient.

  • Working with Chrysler and Delphi, the EARL group has demonstrated a new mode of combustion called homogeneous charge compression ignition. Using a prototype engine, this mode offers a 20 percent improvement in fuel economy over conventional engines.
  • MSU researchers have developed a new thermoelectric material. This is important because the vast majority of heat that is generated from a car engine is lost through the tail pipe. It’s the thermoelectric material’s job to take that heat and turn it into something useful, like electricity. The researchers developed the material based on natural minerals known as tetrahedrites. “What we’ve managed to do is synthesize some compounds that have the same composition as natural minerals,” says Donald Morelli, who directs MSU’s Center for Revolutionary Materials for Solid State Energy Conversion.
  • Like people who drive gas-powered cars, those with electric vehicles are always on the lookout for their next “fill up.” Or, in their case, battery recharge. This so-called “range anxiety” could someday be eased a bit thanks to a team of MSU researchers. Jeff Sakamoto, associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science, and his team are looking to improve upon the lithium-ion battery, a rechargeable battery that works well in hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles but still needs improvement for all-electric vehicles. The challenge facing the researchers is daunting: they want to make the battery last longer but be less expensive and safer.
  • When it comes to car engines running efficiently, the mixing of air and fuel within the engine is crucial. MSU researchers have developed a diagnostic technique known as molecular tagging velocimetry, or MTV, that has greatly improved understanding of this important process. Development of the MTV technique, a collaboration between the Colleges of Engineering and Natural Science, was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
  • Also in the realm of fuel-air mixing, MSU researchers are working to better understand what they refer to as the “turbulent” flows of fuel and air inside engine cylinders. As indicated by its name, turbulent flow is sometimes compared to the rapids of a river—it’s messy and chaotic but essential to the rapid movement of a flame across the combustion chamber of an engine.

Revving up research

One of the Energy and Automotive Research Laboratory’s major supporters is mechanical engineering alumnus—and avid car collector—Richard Brown.

Brown, who previously served as president and CEO of Grand Rapids-area auto parts manufacturer The Brown Corporation of America, Inc., has made significant gifts to support EARL. In addition to helping establish the Brown Lab, he has also provided generous funding for scholarships for engineering students and has created an endowed fellowship in mechanical engineering.

“I believe giving back to those who have been pivotal to one’s success in life is both an obligation and a joy,” says Brown, who in 2001 received the Claud R. Erickson Distinguished Alumni Award from the College of Engineering. “EARL afforded me the opportunity to show my appreciation to MSU for life-changing educational experience and the automotive industry for an extremely rewarding career in manufacturing.”