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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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New biofuels emissions lab will create better engines

Auto & Manufacturing Engineering Technology

Minnesota State Mankato is moving forward with plans to build a high-tech auto emissions lab that will be unique to the Upper Midwest, providing new concepts for biofuel-friendly engines.

By Brian Johnson, Finance and Commerce Staff Writer [published in Finance and Commerce, Minneapolis, MN, 3/18/2008]

Minnesota State University, Mankato is moving forward with plans to build a high-tech auto emissions lab that will be unique to the Upper Midwest.

The lab, which received a $250,000 grant from the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council last week, will be used by students and faculty in the university’s Auto & Manufacturing Engineering Technology (AMET) program.

School officials believe the lab will help promote the biofuels industry in Mankato, and throughout Minnesota, by helping student and faculty researchers improve the performance and fuel efficiency of renewable fuels.

Researchers at the lab, which is scheduled to open this fall, will have tools to develop engine designs that maximize fuel efficiency, with a particular emphasis on vehicles that use blended ethanol, biofuels, and other renewable fuels, according to the university.

The 5,000-square-foot lab will house high-tech equipment that measures exhaust and emissions from automobiles, trucks, recreational vehicles and "non-road" engines, such as lawnmowers.

The $2.8 million lab will double the space of the existing lab, enabling more students to enroll in the popular AMET program, according to John Frey, dean of the university’s College of Sciences, Engineering & Technology.

"From a building perspective, it's not a huge project," Frey added. "From an equipment perspective, it's kind of huge, because we are putting in that building something like $2 million worth of equipment for testing emissions."

A key piece of equipment will be the lab's "Sealed Housing for Evaporation Determination (SHED)," or a small, enclosed area that enables researchers to measure vehicle emissions.

Unlike the school's existing lab, the new lab will produce renewable-fuel data recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Bruce Jones, director of the AMET program.

Toro, Polaris, Arctic Cat and other local manufacturers of small-engine products have to meet strict EPA emissions standards that require testing. In order to get that EPA-recognized testing, they currently have to travel to places like Michigan or Arizona, Jones said.

"We are really starting to ramp up in hybrid vehicles," Jones added. "As these come to the forefront, work needs to be done on emissions and things like that, and there are not a lot of labs around that do that."

Perhaps more important, the new lab will support engine design research that aims to "regain fuel efficiency sometimes lost in biofuels," which produce fewer calories of energy per unit, the university noted.

Ethanol, for example, produces approximately 76,000 Btu, or heat energy units, per gallon, compared with 112,000 per gallon in petroleum gasoline, Jones explained. Simply put, when you burn a gallon of gasoline, you have more heat energy than when you burn a gallon of gasoline blended with ethanol.

"Heat energy is what provides the power in your engine to move you along," Jones added. "So if you were using an ethanol-based fuel, you have less Btu of energy to move you down the road."

That's why you see fuel economy drop with ethanol blends.

At the same time, ethanol has higher octane levels than gasoline, which "allows you to do some things to the engine that you can't do on gasoline," Jones said. "You can overcome some of the fuel economy losses that would be caused by the smaller amount of energy."

Jones said the Minnesota State Mankato program focuses on a variety of renewable fuels besides ethanol, including biodesel, methanol, propane, natural gas, and solar electric.

Minnesota State Mankato's Auto & Manufacturing Engineering Technology program isn't new. It has been involved in biofuels research and emissions testing since the 1973 oil embargo. And the school has offered a Bachelor of Science degree in automotive engineering technology since 1988.

E-Ride, a Princeton-based manufacturer of electric vehicles, is among the local businesses that have done performance testing and product development work at the existing lab.

"They have more equipment and resources than a growing company like E-Ride does," said Bob Peich, an engineer for the five-year-old company.

"They have dynamometers there that can put the vehicle through a test loop. So we were able to get better control over all the conditions. They can adjust the dynamometer to different terrains.

"That will allow us to look at making changes and improvements to increase the range of the vehicle, or we can look at wear and tear on different components in different situations."

Architectural drawings are complete for the new lab. The university hopes to go out to bid on the project by next month and break ground in early June, in anticipation of a November completion.

Frey said the university has raised roughly $1.6 million for the $2.8 million project so far.

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