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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Hybrid vehicle designed

By Liz Crumbley

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 07 - October 6, 1994

Can engineers convert a Dodge Neon into an electric car that can reach 60 miles per hour in 12 seconds, run 150 miles without an electric charge from an external power source, and satisfy federal clean-air laws?

The Chrysler Corp. has delivered a Neon to a team of faculty and students in the College of Engineering and challenged them to create a hybrid-electric vehicle that out-performs traditional electric cars and meets upcoming pollutant-emissions requirements.

The Tech team is one of 12 groups of finalists in the national Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV) Challenge, sponsored annually by Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE), Natural Resources Canada, and the Society of Automotive Engineers.

The sponsors hope university researchers can help Detroit learn how to lower pollutant emissions to meet future requirements of the 1992 Clean Air Act, while maintaining high performance standards to meet the requirements of consumers. The automakers also need to meet a deadline in the California market, where 2 percent of all cars sold by 1998 must meet ultra-low emissions standards.

The engineers at Tech will remove the Neon's original engine, gas tank, and muffler system and replace them with about 200 battery cells, a generator, and an electric motor donated by General Electric Corp., said Bill Stinnett, a graduate assistant on the team. The on-board generator, fueled by compressed natural gas, will recharge the batteries.

"One problem with most electric cars is their short range," said Doug Nelson, an associate professor of Mechanical Engineering and a faculty advisor for the project. HEV Challenge specifications call for the Neon to have a range of 150 miles at 55 mph without refueling, Nelson said. The Tech team will set the generator to kick in at a certain point as the batteries' charges decrease, so that recharge can take place while the car is in motion, Stinnett noted.

The car also must run five miles at 30 mph without a recharge from the generator. Nelson said the Tech hybrid car probably will exceed this all-electric range specification.

The major goal of the HEV Challenge, which is in its third year, is to develop technology for mass production of ultra-low emissions vehicles. "Ultra-low doesn't mean zero emissions," Nelson explained, "but it is close to zero."

However, the automakers need cars that can do more than run a good distance while emitting few air pollutants. The HEV Challenge requires that the hybrid Neons reach 60 mph within 15 seconds, have working air conditioning and heat, and retain all original safety and exterior features. Stinnett said the research teams also are encouraged to maintain operation of other performance features, including power steering and power brakes.

Tests of the re-designed Neon are due to start in February, Stinnett said, and the HEV sponsors have set a June 1995 deadline for the hybrid vehicles to be taken to Detroit for evaluation. After that, the Virginia Tech team will continue to work on the car for the 1996 HEV Challenge, adding improvements such as higher-energy-density batteries.

Stinnett said the Tech HEV Challenge team is seeking a grant from the state government for low-emissions research. "The hybrid electric technology would certainly be applicable to the problem of lowering auto emissions in Virginia," Stinnett commented.

So far, Virginia sponsors for the Tech HEV project are General Electric and Roanoke Gas Co. Stinnett said the research team hopes to bring more state sponsors in on the project.

Nelson said about 50 Tech students will be involved in constructing the hybrid electric Neon. Tech Mechanical Engineering team members, who submitted the design proposal to the HEV sponsors, will be joined by Department of Electrical Engineering researchers, advised by associate professor Jaime De La Ree.

Chrysler and the DOE will make cash awards to the universities that design the top-rated hybrid vehicles.