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The race for tomorrow's car

Breaking speed records may not be the usual pursuit of a university. But at the Ohio State University in the USA, that's what they're doing. As a result, OSU is producing top-class engineers, improving future automotive design.

 

Breaking speed records may not be the usual pursuit of a university. But at the Ohio State University in the USA, that's what they're doing. As a result, OSU is producing top-class engineers, improving future automotive design.

 

Sure, Giorgio Rizzoni (pictured left in his lab) loves doing cutting-edge research on vehicle propulsion systems of the future, including advanced engines, electric and hybrid-electric drivetrains, advanced batteries and fuel cell systems. But what really revs the 52-year-old Italian-American scientist's engine is helping his students push current automotive technology to the absolute limit in pursuit of world land speed records for electric vehicles.

 

"As an educational institution, our goal is to create the best engineers we can," says Rizzoni, an engineering professor and director of the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) at the Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio, and the Ford Motor Company Chair in Electromechanical Systems. "In addition to the challenge, trying to break these records helps us do just that."


Soon after he joined OSU as a teacher and researcher in 1990, Rizzoni became the faculty administrator for the university's student electric racing single-seat team. After winning three national university titles, the team set its sights on a much bigger challenge: setting world land speed records for electric vehicles.
"You don't just show up and set the record," Rizzoni says from his office in the CAR, a 35,000-square-foot facility where he oversees the efforts of 30 full-time researchers who develop and test a wide variety of automotive parts and systems, mostly for car manufacturers.


"You have to find sponsors, design and build your vehicle and make many trips to the Bonneville Salt Flats," he says. "The process requires students to learn to set goals and manage time and helps them understand every aspect of the automotive process, from aerodynamics and design to electronic systems and advanced motors. These extreme projects also provide students with opportunities to insert innovative ideas into current products and possibly even create new solutions."


The results, he adds, speak for themselves. In addition to setting the current US flying mile record of 507km/h for a battery-powered vehicle in 2004 and the FIA-certified world record of 495km/h in 2010, the OSU students built a hydrogen-fueled electric vehicle that crushed the existing record of 140km/h by reaching a speed of 488km/h in 2009. The team hopes to go even faster in 2012 with a new lithium-ion battery-powered car, the third generation of the Buckeye Bullet Streamliner.

 

In addition to earning bragging rights for OSU, Rizzoni says the racing team's performances – and particularly the knowledge its student members have acquired from the development process – have helped many of them land top jobs with some of the world's biggest automotive manufacturers, all of which are working hard to design and build cars that can meet ever-tightening energy and emission mandates.


"By 2016, we will see many of the same cars and technologies we see today, but the mix will include more medium- and compact-size cars and fewer large SUVs and trucks," says Rizzoni. The future of 'individual mobility,' he adds, likely lies in the micro-sized 'city cars' now appearing in European capitals such as Rome, Italy. That was where Rizzoni was born and raised before emigrating to the US at age 18 to study electrical engineering at the University of Michigan. Later he was hired by the school's Vehicular Electronics Laboratory, which was then pioneering vehicle electronic control systems for internal combustion engines.


"I think what will happen is that people will be willing to purchase more specialized vehicles that are more appropriate for commuting or urban usage as opposed to what we do today, which is to expect that every vehicle will be able to carry five people, the dog, the groceries and travel 400 miles," says Rizzoni. "Engines are becoming more fuel-efficient and smaller."

 

"In North America," he says, "we are still almost completely dependent on gasoline. But car manufacturers are trying hard to develop engines that are smaller and more fuel-efficient. Ford, for example, is significantly reducing its production of eight-cylinder engines and focusing on six- and four-cylinders instead, as well as making huge investments in turbocharging that can provide power for short periods of time. That is being tied in with the concept of a plug-in hybrid that couples the supply of energy from a fuel to the supply of energy from the electric power grid or alternative source.


"We are also looking at other possible fuels, including fossil fuels like methane and natural gas, as well as combustible biofuels like ethanol and electricity," adds Rizzoni. "My own personal area of expertise is control systems, including the control and management of these different fuel systems and helping them operate at their maximum performance.


"In addition to fuel and batteries, the number one factor that affects fuel efficiency is mass," he adds. "The lighter the vehicle, the less fuel it uses; it's that simple. So we are also looking at lightweight materials like aluminum, magnesium and plastic, and their applications and replacement of stamped steel."

 

He adds that the main challenge in the development of new methods and materials for the car industry is the ability to answer yes to the three questions that both vex and haunt all automotive engineers: Can it be manufactured? Can it be done cost-effectively? Is it crashworthy?


"It's not easy," says Rizzoni. "That's why scientists jokingly refer to the ideal material as 'un-obtanium'. But those are the criteria that must be met. Anyone who can create new materials without changing any of these three things is a hero."

 

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