NYSERDA Funds Research to Develop Engine Fueled by Compressed Natural Gas

Improved engine capabilities could include lower emissions, better range and reductions in fuel costs

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James Lee

If only 5 percent of New York state’s 11 million registered vehicles switched to using natural gas rather than imported gasoline, 12,000 tons of hydrocarbon emissions could be eliminated, according to researchers at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Led by James Lee, assistant professor of mechanical engineering technology in RIT’s College of Applied Science and Technology, the research group recently received a $49,762 grant from NYSERDA, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, to further the development of an engine fueled with compressed natural gas that uses an advanced combustion process in a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

As part of NYSERDA’s Advanced Transportation Technologies Program, Lee’s project could result in higher energy efficiencies in alternative vehicles—from improvements to the vehicle’s driving range to reducing the dependence on imported oil. The target application for the engine, which will determine how the engine is operated, is the power source for a battery charging system in a light-duty plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

“What we’re trying to do is take the properties of natural gas, look at what the batteries need to last the longest and to perform the best, and see what advanced combustion techniques can we use to get as much energy to minimize the emissions of that natural gas and deliver to the batteries what they need to power the vehicles of the future,” Lee says.

This model engine, a 28-horsepower, two-cylinder electronic fuel-injected engine, would use compressed natural gas and be the platform for Lee’s new research into determining how the air, fuel and exhaust mix during engine operation.

This project will further the development of a foundational model of a homogeneous charge compression engine designed in 2011 by Lee and project team members Robert Garrick, associate professor, and Larry Villasmil, assistant professor, both in the College of Applied Science and Technology’s mechanical engineering technology department, and Christopher DeMinco, adjunct professor of mechanical engineering in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering.

By understanding these processes, the team expects to improve engine performance, understand how different equipment within the engine, such as modified pistons and cylinders, would adapt to the new fuel source and measure emissions.

The research team will test these elements through computer modeling at laboratory facilities at RIT and its industry partners for the project, Delphi Automotive and Kohler Engines. The latter two organizations provided financial and in-kind resources or equipment of $17,000 and $10,000, respectively.

Natural gas is plentiful in New York and the United States, produces fewer emissions when burned compared to petroleum, and is the most promising option for a domestically produced transportation fuel for the foreseeable future, Lee explains.

“Natural gas is going to be the next big fuel. There are large quantities throughout the world, and that gives us a more distributed energy source for a lot of different countries, which is an excellent thing.”