You Made What?

Paul Spacher ’82

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A. Sue Weisler

Spacher helped redesign the battery cooling system of the Chevy Volt. His work is a reason the electric car can travel 35 miles or more on battery power.

Paul Spacher ’82 (mechanical engineering) wasn’t expecting to work on the lithium-ion battery cooling system of the Chevy Volt.

The General Motors employee was asked to consult on the project because those working on it were struggling to get the cooling system leak-free. But before he knew it, he and two others at the Honeoye Falls, N.Y., Fuel Cell Research and Development Center were building prototypes.

“One of the issues to get the range that we wanted out of the Volt was to be able to find a way to cool the individual (battery) cells,” says Daniel O’Connell, director of advance technology demonstration projects for GM Fuel Cell Activities. “A lot of companies were having difficulty with overheating of the cells. And Paul was really involved in the redesign of that cooling system and was able to develop a system that we were able to patent.”

The battery cooling plate contributed to a key selling point of the electric car—it can travel 35 miles or more on battery power before gas kicks in. And it also helps the battery last longer. The warranty is for eight years or 100,000 miles, O’Connell says, the highest in the industry now.

Pretty impressive for this engineer who grew up in Greece, N.Y., and has been working on small engines since he was 8 years old.

Spacher started working for Alliance Automation Systems Inc. in Rochester in 1977 as summer help and then as a co-op while he was a student at RIT. During his more than 20 years there, he designed and built automation lines for the Big Three U.S. automakers. He also was accredited as a professional engineer and he constructed his own 2,000-square-foot, four-bedroom house from the ground up.

“I have always enjoyed working on anything mechanical,” he says.

In 2002, he became a manufacturing engineer at the Delphi Automotive plant in Rochester. He joined GM’s Fuel Cell Research and Development Center in 2005, where he works on fuel cell and battery design.

He started working on the technology behind the Volt a few years ago. It took his team six months to come up with the concept, six months to prove it worked and another year to put it into pre-production. The car hit the marketplace in 2010.

“Once we built the prototype, we knew it was going to work,” Spacher says, adding that team members drew on their past experience with fuel cells. “We just had to prove it to everybody else at that point in time.”

For their battery cooling plate, Spacher and the two other GM engineers received the 2010 Boss Kettering Award, GM’s most prestigious engineering achievement award for innovative designs.

“People look at me like, ‘You actually worked on the Volt?’ ” Spacher says. “They don’t believe you. And a lot of people, anybody from the car industry, think you were one of 1,000 people or 100 people who worked on it. It’s hard for them to imagine how much work we did here with so few people.”