New center to focus on using fluid power to improve vehicle efficiency

Jamie VanGeest

Fluid research is streaming new opportunities in to the University’s department of mechanical engineering.

The University is to open the new Engineering Research Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power, as part of a collaboration with six other colleges. The new center will focus on making fluid power more efficient and compact.

The research center was created out of a $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation, said Kim Stelson, a professor in the department of mechanical engineering and the director of the future center.

Also, industry partners such as the National Fluid Power Association will provide an additional $3 million, and universities involved with the center are contributing $3 million also, making the total funding for the new research center $21 million.

Linda Western, the executive director of the National Fluid Power Association, said she sees promise in the new center.

“We see the potential for close working relationships between industry and academia,” Western said.

The other core universities involved with the center include Purdue University, Vanderbilt University, Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The outreach universities include North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

The University of Minnesota competed with about 100 other universities across the nation for the National Science Foundation Grant, said Perry Li, an associate professor in the department of mechanical engineering and future deputy director of the center.

Stelson said the University’s proposal was picked because of the collaboration between different universities and the potential of fluid power for saving money.

“It’s the idea of spending millions of dollars to save billions,” Stelson said.

He described fluid power as the transmission of power using fluid liquids or gases, he said

The two types of fluid power are hydraulic, which uses oil, and pneumatics, which uses compressed air, Stelson said.

Examples of devices using hydraulics include airplanes and the lifts auto mechanics use. An example of a device using pneumatics is a dentist drill, Stelson said.

The three goals of the new center include increasing the efficiency of current technologies that use fluid power, he said.

Currently the United States uses $70 billion in fluid energy. If the center is able to increase fluid power’s efficiency by 10 percent, the country will save $7 billion a year, Stelson said.

Another goal is to bring fluid power to the transportation sector, he said.

The center will do research on developing hydraulic hybrid cars.

Currently, hydraulic hybrids only work in large trucks and buses, but the center hopes to put the technology into passenger cars, he said.

Stelson estimated if fuel efficiency is increased by 10 percent in passenger cars, the country would save $100 billion a year.

UPS is considering creating a fleet of hydraulic hybrid delivery trucks that will save the company an estimated $1 billion a year in fuel costs, he said.

Also, creating hydraulic hybrids will eventually cost less than producing electric hybrids, which will make hybrid cars more economical.

“Efficiency is our short-term goal, but compactness is our long-term goal,” Stelson said.

A few of the uses for more compact fluid technologies include assistive devices for the disabled and untethered autonomous robots.

Stelson said 40 percent of Americans older than 65 have mobility issues. For example, canes used to help people stand up can be created using fluid power. Or, devices helping people to use the bathroom on their own can be created.

Also, if the compactness of fluid power is increased, robots for regular use could be created.

“We can go to the movies and see R2-D2, but nothing like that exists today,” Stelson said.

Stelson said the Japanese government projected robots will be a billion-dollar business in the next decade.

William Durfee, education and outreach director of the new center, said there will be many ways the center will reach out to students and the community.

“(Education and outreach) will benefit the University because it will put a public face on this research center,” Durfee said.

First, the center is going to work with the Minnesota Science Museum to create a display about fluid power that would travel to science museums across the country, he said.

Then, partnering with Project Lead the Way, the center will create a curriculum on fluid power that will be used by middle and high school students, he said.

The last form of outreach includes providing industrial internships for undergraduate mechanical engineering students. So far, 50 companies have volunteered to provide internships, Durfee said.