In a state where the gasoline- powered internal combustion engine has ruled the roads and defined the economy for more than a century, students in an automotive technology class at Lansing Community College are shifting gears.
They’re building three internal combustion engines that will run on hydrogen, positioning themselves for the future and re-positioning what can be accomplished at a community college that’s willing to get out ahead of the curve on new technologies.
“Most people think the research is being done exclusively by the automakers. But it’s also being done right here in this classroom,” says Winston Lane, an automotive machinist consultant who is overseeing the project. “That’s what makes this project so exciting. Research and development must be done before hydrogen powered vehicles will be a cost- effective alternative to gasoline powered vehicles and we’re a part of it.”
The automotive technology students have been working nearly three semesters now, building the automobile engines and calibrating them to work specifically with hydrogen, rather than gasoline. They will be tested in mid- May.
Regardless of what happens when the engines are tested, the hands-on experience of building the engines from the ground up prepares students to build or service them when hydrogen-powered engines are brought to market. It also provides those who might move on to four-year engineering programs with a practical understanding of the technologies that underlie the use of hydrogen as an automotive fuel.
“This is a real development project,” says Howard Dillman, chair of the technical careers division in the school’s transportation technologies department. “We are building what is essentially a race engine that can reach maximum RPMs with no problem while running on hydrogen. There aren’t many universities working on this; we’re trying to take it the next step.”
Lansing Community College’s hydrogen project is part of its Alternative Energy Initiative. The college, located in the heart of Michigan’s auto manufacturing belt, was tapped by the U.S. Department of Energy to develop alternative energy curriculum, train the workforce in alternative energy and educate the general public on alternative energy.
“We know the hydrogen economy is coming and we want to be ready,” says Lane, who says his students will be well prepared to take jobs as automotive technicians specializing in alternative fueled vehicles or transfer on to an engineering program with an alternative energy specialty.
Building a hydrogen engine can cost $5,000 more than traditional gasoline- powered engines because of the expensive parts and materials needed. Researchers hope that they can come up with solutions to make the engine cost less. LCC is using funds it received from the Department of Energy and parts donated from General Motors to fund its hydrogen engine experiment.
Fueling and distribution are hurdles to be jumped before hydrogen vehicles are ready for the mass market. Right now it takes all night to fuel a hydrogen vehicle, according to Lane. In addition, a tank of hydrogen can be used up in a short time, so researchers are finding ways to compress the gas. Before hydrogen could become an alternative to gasoline, a network of hydrogen fueling stations will have to be built.
With all the technological hurdles, Lane admits mass marketing of hydrogen vehicles is a decade or more away. He hopes the work of his students helps as Michigan — and the nation — take the next important steps.
“Hydrogen is the wave of the future,” he says. “The only by-product is water and converting to hydrogen vehicles will reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”