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Windsor research helping vehicles run on biofuel


November 25, 2014
By BioFuelNet

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These days, fuels for cars vary almost as much as the cars themselves. Each country has its own standards for biofuel content, resulting in a mishmash of fuel compositions. In Brazil, for example, ethanol reigns supreme at the pump, and customers who want to buy 100-percent gasoline will pay a premium. In the United States, car fuel contains 10 percent ethanol. Other countries mandate a biofuel content of 20 percent, and still others leave the decision to market forces.

These days, fuels for cars vary almost as much as
the cars themselves. Each country has its own standards for biofuel content, resulting
in a mishmash of fuel compositions. In Brazil, for example, ethanol reigns
supreme at the pump, and customers who want to buy 100-percent gasoline will
pay a premium. In the United States, car fuel contains 10 percent ethanol. Other
countries mandate a biofuel content of 20 percent, and still others leave the
decision to market forces.

 

This “wild
west” of fuel mixes poses a concern for car manufacturers that also produce
engines, such as the Ford Motor Company. When the company sells engines to
other countries, the engines have to function within the host country’s emission
and biofuel standards.

 

Not
surprisingly, “creating efficient engines that accommodate all these different
fuel types is an enormous challenge,” says Dr. Ming Zheng, co-founder of the
state-of-the-art Clean Diesel Engine Laboratory at the University of Windsor. Over the past 10 years, the lab has
received an infusion of $11 million from government and industry – and a
crucial connection to renewable fuel experts in Canada via BioFuelNet. “It’s a
university setting, but we focus on solving real-world problems,” says Dr.
Zheng, who also served two-terms as Canada’s Research Chair in Clean Diesel
Engine Technology 2003-2013.

 

One of the
lab’s ongoing industrial partners, Ford has been working with Dr. Zheng’s laboratory
to help design biofuel engines needed for the international market. “We
manufacture our engines so that they’re able to run efficiently with biofuel,”
says Dr. Jimi Tjong, manager and technical leader at Ford. “That way we can
market them in many parts of the world.”

 

Dr. Zheng’s lab
has been focusing on low-temperature combustion (LTC), a technology that has
the potential to greatly reduce pollutant emissions of diesel engines. The research
team has already made substantial strides toward this end when it developed
technologies of adaptive combustion control along with exhaust gas
recirculation to reduce emissions of LTC engines.

 

The balance
between emission control and fuel efficiency remains a challenge, though. Here’s
how Dr. Zheng explains it: “One of the pollutants in engine exhaust is nitrogen
oxides (NOx). Lowering the flame temperature of the engine reduces the production
of NOx, but it also leads the fuel to burn less efficiently.” This means the
fuel doesn’t stretch as far on the road. Another problem with current LTC
technology is that levels of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide in the engine
exhaust remain relatively high.

 

What Dr.
Zheng’s group seeks to do now, with Ford’s ongoing involvement, is to improve
the LTC technology to achieve the best of both worlds:  a diesel engine that efficiently burns a
variety of fuel mixes and keeps emissions under control – a tall order, to be
sure. To this end, they test different injection techniques, mixing processes,
and combustion control algorithms. To eye on the future, the group has been
working on smarter igniters and more efficient combustion chambers.

 

If the endeavour
sounds highly complex – well, it is. Imagine a sequence of hardware and
software that begins with a research engine, followed by gas analyzers, pressure
and temperature controllers, real-time emission monitors, fuel flow monitor,
fuel injection controller, online heat release monitor, and data
synchronization manager. The research platforms allow Zheng’s group to dig in
the fundamental hurdles that are pertinent to the next generation engines. That’s
the sequence that occupies Dr. Zheng’s work days. “We’ve been testing and
refining our processes with single-cylinder engines, using a variety of
different biofuel mixes,” he explains. The next step will be to Guinea-Pig the
technology on the larger diesel engines in commercial use today.

 

Recognizing the
importance of this work – not just for international business but for the growing
biofuel industry in Canada – BioFuelNet began supporting the project in 2012. Since
that time, Dr. Zheng and his colleagues have been meeting with BioFuelNet fuel
experts regularly to discuss how the work is progressing. “They have chemists
who help us understand the chemical properties of different fuels and engine
developers who share their knowledge about physical properties,” Dr. Zheng
explains, citing BioFuelNet researcher Murray Thompson, a mechanical
engineering professor at the University of Toronto, as “instrumental in the
collaboration.”

 

Dr. Zheng sees
enormous potential for the research. Right now, using ethanol in a gasoline
engine lingers the engine’s thermal efficiency to up to 30 percent, he says.
The diesel technology he’s perfecting in his lab, meanwhile, can raise an engine’s thermal efficiency to
50 percent, whether the fuel is gasoline or ethanol.

 

Along with
BioFuelNet, the project receives support from the National Science and
Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. Dr.
Tjong says he applauds a collaboration that sees university researchers,
graduate students, and industry partners coming together toward a common end.
“We’ve had Master’s and PhD students performing their experiments using our
state of the art facilities,” he says.

 

If all goes as
planned, Dr. Zheng hopes the research will “help the industry identify the best
types of biofuel to use commercially—and use them more efficiently.” Yes, it
could be big.


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