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OSU and its partners pioneer hybrid power conversion with 900 jobs in mind

Sasha Isurin, Sr. Engineer-power conversion specialist, works on new technology. Photos Ben French
Sasha Isurin, Sr. Engineer-power conversion specialist, works on new technology. Photos Ben French

There's a high-stakes race on in the electric vehicle arena, and an Ohio State University-based collaborative plans to lead the way -- at least in the commercial vehicle market.

If it does, it could mean an estimated 900 new clean-energy jobs over the next five years.

Central in the effort is Ohio State University's Center for Automotive Research, which recently secured the first $500,000 of a $3-million Ohio Third Frontier grant to develop market-viable commercial vehicles.

Collaborators include power-conversion expert Vanner Inc., of Hilliard, and Columbus-based American Electric Power Co.

Together with software developer STMicroelectronics' (Livonia, Mich.), and trucking company Fil-More Express (Cannon Falls, Minn.), CAR hopes to launch technology that will allow widespread use of plug-in hybrid commercial vehicles -- reducing emissions, fuel consumption, and maintenance costs.

The work being done at CAR will allow gas-guzzling electrical components to be run from an advanced, high-voltage battery pack -- which could be recharged by plugging the vehicle into an AC outlet. Hence, the participation of AEP, which has a vital interest both in how the use of plug-in hybrids will affect its overall electrical grid and in converting its bucket trucks and service vehicles, says Giorgio Rizzoni, CAR director and professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State.

Automotive manufacturers and universities around the country are working to meet the nation's growing demand for hybrids and all-electric vehicles. Major auto-makers such as Toyota, Honda, Ford and General Motors already offer hybrids within their product lines. General Motors, which plans to begin selling its Chevrolet Volt hybrid next year, claims the car can get up to 230 miles per gallon.

Ohio researchers and businesses, as those in other states, also are working to solve some of the problems involved in converting all-gasoline vehicles to something cleaner and more energy efficient. For example, Bowling Green State University's Electric Vehicle Institute is developing and promoting advanced electric propulsion technology that can be transferred to the marketplace.

Myers Motors, based in northeast Ohio, has taken it a step further. Calling itself "the only company producing and delivering affordable highway speed all-electric vehicles in the U.S. today," the company offers one- and two-passenger versions of its made-to-order NmG.

Yet, little has been done nationally to advance plug-in hybrid technology among commercial vans, buses and other vehicles, Rizzoni says. He says it's a huge opportunity waiting to happen.

"Companies that make passenger cars are pretty well equipped to do this," Rizzoni says. "Commercial vehicles are a different story."

That's because the manufacturers of passenger vehicles are almost always fully integrated within one company -- meaning the same company that builds the mechanical system also builds the electrical system and does the assembly. They understand the integration of those components and can do so seamlessly.

Commercial vehicles, conversely, are often custom built, Rizzoni says. The company that does the final assembly is usually not the same company that built the transmission or the engine. That's an important barrier to the building of hybrid commercial vehicles, Rizzoni says.

"They don't have the expertise to do the system integration."

The collaborators, as part of Ohio State's SmartCar consortium, are working on a power conversion system that will separate electrical components from the mechanical components of the engine. The goal is to replace the role of the alternator -- which in conventional engines converts mechanical energy from combustion into electrical energy needed for compressors, pumps, fans and other components.

"Our goal is to get rid of all the belts," says Steve Funk, president of Vanner. "That will significantly improve fuel efficiency of hybrid vehicles."

Vanner, based in Hilliard, started in a garage in 1977 and initially made flashers for ambulances. It later developed a product to provide efficient power for life-saving equipment on those vehicles.

"Our focus now is on power conversion -- we want to use the power from the hybrid drive system to remove the belt-driven load and improve the overall value proposition of the hybrid specialty vehicle," Funk says.

Funk says CAR provides the facilities needed to do the necessary validation and testing. He estimates that the company's relationship with CAR will cut in half the time needed to develop, validate, test and market power conversion systems for the next generation of commercial fleet vehicles.

Funk said the technology being pioneered at CAR could be on the market as soon as next year.

Rizzoni says the work being done at Ohio State is unique among universities. North Carolina State University, for example, is focusing on the impact that plug-in hybrids will have on the electric power grid. And the University of California at Davis is looking at public policy and consumer behavior associated with hybrids. Neither is specifically targeting the opportunities that commercial vehicles offer.

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