1995 Discover Awards: Automotive and Transportation

Thursday, June 01, 1995
RELATED TAGS: GADGETS
As an engineer, David Eisenhaure appreciates the quick acceleration of his Yamaha XF-650 motorcycle, which he rides every day to his office at SatCon Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What really gets the 49-year-old president and chief executive officer excited, though, is the idea of driving a battery-powered car that performs just as well. Conventional lead-acid batteries, however, use slow-acting chemical reactions, which means they cannot deliver power quickly enough for fast acceleration.

The idea might have gone nowhere, except that François Castaing, vice president for vehicle engineering at Chrysler, had the same thought. Castaing and Eisenhaure put their heads together and found a solution in a familiar electromechanical energy storage device known as the flywheel. Although it has been around for centuries, the humble flywheel turns out to be far better than batteries at storing energy and releasing it fast. No one has come up with a battery technology that can compete, Eisenhaure says. For cars, that means more pep on the highway.

Chrysler commissioned SatCon to make a flywheel for a racing car, toughened it up to withstand vibration from the road, and came up with the Patriot, a hybrid car that uses both a combustion engine and a flywheel to conserve on gasoline. When the Patriot hits the road, it will funnel the energy typically lost in braking to the flywheel--as the car decelerates, the flywheel picks up the lost momentum--and then release that energy when a burst of acceleration is needed. The virtually frictionless flywheel, sealed in a vacuum and riding on custom-designed bearings, gives back 90 percent of the energy put into it. Before each race, technicians in the pit will rev the flywheel to 60,000 revolutions per minute, enough energy for the car to accelerate when the flag is dropped. Having a flywheel also means that the combustion engine can run at a constant rate, further increasing energy savings.

The goal is to ready the car for the Le Mans this summer or, failing that, the Daytona 500 next February. With 500 horsepower and weighing 1,700 pounds, the Patriot should deliver three times more punch per pound than Eisenhaure’s motorcycle. Castaing believes that hybrids are likely to be mass-produced early next century.

Finalists:

New Tricks for the Old Gas Engine

Ford’s Duratec Engine

Innovator: Stanley Olszewski

Engineers have spent more than 100 years perfecting the internal combustion engine, but don’t tell that to Stanley Olszewski. He probably still thinks there’s room for improvement.

He and others at Ford spent 60 months reinventing the common car engine, and they managed to do the engineering equivalent of squeezing blood from a stone. Last year they unveiled Duratec, a powerful V-6 engine that has the small size, fuel economy, and low cost of a more modest four- cylinder engine.

Olszewski’s team accomplished this feat by a combination of state-of-the-art technology and plain old-fashioned engineering. They laboriously redesigned many basic parts, such as crankshafts and exhaust manifolds, to reduce their size. They introduced an aluminum casting process that had never been used in automobile mass production, which allowed them to make the engine blocks lighter and more compact. Each cylinder is fed by two air-intake valves rather than one, which allows the fuel to burn more efficiently, thereby cutting down on emissions, conserving fuel, and giving the engine better acceleration. Specially designed platinum-tipped spark plugs that wear longer and resist corrosion extend the recommended time between tune-ups from the standard 30,000 miles to a whopping 100,000 miles.

Ford introduced the engine to rave reviews and has already made 100,000 of them for its Mondeo, Contour, and Mystique models. If even driving to the store can be made a more pleasant experience, says Olszewski, who owns a Mystique, then we’ve done our job.

Water Cars

A-55/Caterpillar’s Water-Fuel Formula

Innovator: Rudolf Gunnerman

If physicist Rudolf Gunnerman has his way, cars may soon run on water. The 68-year-old independent physicist and president of A-55 Limited Partnership in Reno, Nevada, has invented a fuel additive that couldn’t be more plentiful or cheaper.

Actually, water makes up 55 percent of Gunnerman’s new fuel. The rest is a heavy-grade naphtha (a less refined form of gasoline) and some closely guarded simple chemicals to keep the cocktail well mixed. Gunnerman labored more than six years and sank $6 million he had earned from previous inventions in coming up with the right brew. That wasn’t easy, considering that the fuel is nonflammable unless put under high pressure. He chose naphtha because it was cheap and then worked to find the optimum concoction of additives and the correct fuel-to-water ratio.

The effort paid off. Gunnerman’s formula, called A-55 (for aqueous 55 percent), gives the same oomph as gasoline but costs half as much per gallon. It runs cooler and produces less smog-causing nitrous oxide than gasoline. And even though it is more than half water, it generally delivers two-thirds of the miles per gallon of conventional gasoline. The catch, however, is that current car engines cannot burn the fuel without about $500 in modifications, including capping each piston with a plating of pure nickel, which acts as a catalyst for ignition.

Gunnerman persuaded equipment maker Caterpillar to form a joint venture, called Advanced Fuels, to evaluate the fuel for diesel trucks, cars, and lawn mowers. My aim is to reverse the trend of higher costs for cleaning the environment and to make transportation safer, says Gunnerman.

Motorized Wheels

Technologies M4’s Couture Powertrain

Innovator: Pierre Couture

German auto designer Ferdinand Porsche first had the idea in 1897. When running on electricity, his hybrid car had only four moving parts: its wheels, with a small motor nestled in the hub of each one. The design was remarkably efficient. Whenever two gears mesh, a small amount of energy is lost. Whereas conventional cars have lots of gears, Porsche’s had none; the small motors applied torque directly to the wheels.

Porsche’s car didn’t catch on, because it lacked a motor with sufficient power. Recently, however, Pierre Couture, director of research at Hydro-Quebec Research Laboratory, recognized that the twentieth century had at last delivered the permanent magnets, windings, and power electronics needed to revive Porsche’s brainchild. Last year, after 13 years and $18 million in research, Technologies M4 in Longueuil, Quebec, unveiled the Powertrain, a prototypical wheel-powered, electric-gas hybrid car. In tests it was found to have the acceleration of a conventional car, and it is expected to cost about the same to manufacture. It has a range of only 40 miles in its all-electric mode, but a small auxiliary gas engine extends this range to that of a conventional car--despite having 500 pounds of nickel-cadmium batteries to lug around.

Couture and colleagues are now busy replacing the mechanical links from the steering wheel to the tires with computer controls to make the independent-minded wheels easier to handle. Since the car’s batteries would need to be charged from an electrical outlet, Technologies M4, a subsidiary of public utility Hydro-Quebec, has an added financial incentive to see the product succeed. Electric cars were very popular at the beginning of the century, says Couture. We hope that the trend will repeat itself at the end of the century.

A Seat Belt for the Seat

Starcraft Automotive’s Integrated Belting System

Innovator: Grant Farrand

Watching TV sometimes pays off. Grant Farrand caught a segment on 60 Minutes a few years ago that highlighted car passengers’ vulnerability to injuries from rear-end collisions. In 1990 more than 1,100 people died and 1,600 sustained serious injuries because their seats collapsed backward when they were bumped from behind, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The issue wasn’t new to the 41-year-old vice president for safety compliance engineering at Starcraft Automotive in Goshen, Indiana. Farrand had already considered reinforcing seat backs with steel rods, a solution pioneered by Daimler Benz, but dismissed them as too heavy and costly. The television program, however, triggered a simpler idea: if a conventional seat belt and shoulder harness keep passengers from being thrown forward in a head-on collision, why not simply put another seat belt behind the seat that keeps them from getting thrown backward if the seat collapses?

The design was so simple, Farrand wondered why nobody had thought of it before. It’s a true seat belt, Farrand says. When a prototype survived independent testing, Starcraft applied for a patent. Farrand, who has since taken a job as vice president of General Testing Laboratory, estimates that it would cost less than $15 to include the belt in mass- produced cars, but so far auto manufacturers haven’t licensed the invention.
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