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R&D is energizing modern powertrains

The internal combustion engine has proved to be a steady and reliable source of power using relatively inexpensive and readily available fuel. But current R&D will make the internal combustion engine even more efficient and cleaner with direct injection and turbo superchargers.


December 8, 2010
by Peter Frise

Auto 21 researchers are engaged in R&D that will make the internal combustion engine cleaner and more efficient.

Photo: iStockphoto

The car has influenced everything from city planning to how families spend their holidays. People use their cars differently and it has been difficult for automakers to match their vehicles with their lifestyles.

An individual’s driving cycle depends on location and personal needs. For example, a farmer in Alberta uses a vehicle very differently than a lawyer living in Oakville and commuting to downtown Toronto each day.

In the earliest days of the auto industry, cars were either custom built for the wealthy or they were basic products with few choices. When Henry Ford began selling Model Ts, he famously proclaimed “any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” There were electric and even steam powertrains, but both disappeared as the industry converged on gasoline and diesel internal combustion engines.

Since then, consumer choice has greatly expanded with options based on convenience, comfort and mandated safety enhancements; however, vehicle powertrains haven’t changed much until recently with the availability of hybrid and some electric vehicles. And more change is coming as Canadian automotive researchers engage in more advanced powertrain R&D.

The internal combustion engine has proved to be a steady and reliable source of power using relatively inexpensive and readily available fuel. Driving ranges are long and the fuel infrastructure offers people the freedom to travel almost anywhere. Indeed, it will likely continue to meet the needs of most drivers for the foreseeable future. But current R&D will make the internal combustion engine even more efficient and cleaner with direct injection and turbo superchargers.

The AUTO21 Network of Centres of Excellence, in partnership with major automakers, has supported several projects focusing on internal combustion engine technologies since 2001, together directing $19 million into powertrain and fuels research, which is nearly 20% of the organization’s total research budget.

Clean diesel
Many automakers are also investing heavily in clean diesel technologies. Today’s diesels are nothing like their noisy, exhaust-belching predecessors that turned off North Americans in the 1970s. They’re clean running and produce tremendous torque, quietly and with remarkable efficiency.

The University of Windsor’s clean diesel laboratory supports some of the world’s best research in clean diesel technology. This facility, partnering with several automakers and suppliers and university researchers across Canada, has received more than $10 million in equipment and personnel support. Today, homogenous charge compression ignition (HCCI) is gaining traction as a means of combining the best features of diesel and gasoline engines for future models.

Hybrid technologies are also an emerging force. With several generations of traditional hybrids already on the road, the technology has proved useful for many drivers, particularly those who drive in stop-and-go city conditions.

The next big development is plug-in electric vehicles (PHEVs), with several models poised for commercialization thanks to advances in the development of lithium batteries.

AUTO21 researchers at Laval, McMaster, Manitoba, Waterloo, Windsor and several other universities are supported by the auto industry as they study the complexities of lithium batteries and the challenges that will inevitably arise once they’re used in real-world situations.

When AUTO21 began operations nearly 10 years ago, much of the R&D attention was on fuel cells and the hydrogen economy. In an ideal world, fuel cell vehicles emitting only water would be the only choice. Research remains active with development fleets numbering hundreds of vehicles globally, but numerous hurdles need to be addressed before hydrogen becomes a reality. Cost, durability, and on-vehicle fuel storage issues, a completely new fuel infrastructure and vehicle performance all require attention, but one day drivers will have even more choice and cleaner travel options.

Peter Frise is the scientific director and CEO of the AUTO21 Network of Centres of Excellence. Visit www.auto21.ca