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University of Wisconsin Madison College of Engineering
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Engine research for a cleaner future

The future of clean, efficient transportation is emerging at UW-Madison, where a team of faculty, staff and students explores the fundamentals of spark-ignition and diesel engines and leads the nation in low-temperature combustion and innovative dual-fuel systems research.

In an era of tightening fuel supplies, rising costs and increasingly sustainability minded institutions and industries, finding more efficient ways to transport passengers from point A to point B is an important enterprise.

Centered around the research of seven mechanical engineering professors, the Engine Research Center (ERC) is the largest of its kind in the United States. It continues a long tradition of engine research on campus, which began with engine combustion temperature research in a metal shack in 1946.

Now, with more than $3 million in research expenditures per year and more than 50 students conducting research projects, the center is a leader in the effort to understand combustion, improve engine efficiency, and reduce emissions.

ERC researchers use detailed supercomputer modeling to predict engine function. They also create and use advanced laser-based diagnostics to provide detailed validation data for models, and explore combustion beyond the scope of modeling efforts. They have a wide array of facilities for optical measurements, more than a dozen test engines, and extensive computational capacity.

Center researchers have pioneered an array of innovations, such as computer models that commercial software vendors have adapted and now sell to companies around the world for engine design—a solution more cost-effective than engine testing.

David Foster, Phil and Jean Myers Professor of mechanical engineering, was the first to successfully demonstrate four-stroke homogenous charge compression ignition (HCCI) engine operation, which mixes diesel and exhaust gas in a reaction with the efficiency of diesel, but also the clean emissions of gasoline. Rolf Reitz, Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of mechanical engineering, is in the process of developing a variant, called reactivity controlled compression ignition (RCCI), that allows for more control over the combustion process. RCCI could improve diesel efficiency by as much as 15 percent, and can emit up to 75 percent less toxic nitrous oxide, without the need for expensive exhaust after-treatment.

 In January, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the center’s low-temperature combustion research could considerably improve engine efficiency and increase the fuel economy of light-duty vehicles by more than 50 percent.

Collaboration drives more than half of the center’s funding, with major industry partners that include: General Motors, Caterpillar, and Ford; campus collaboration with the Wisconsin Small Engine Consortium and the 30 member companies of the Direct-Injection Engine Research Consortium; plus, federal partnerships with the National Science Foundation and Sandia National Labs.

“The majority of the ERC research funding comes from industrial sources, which is a testament to its value to the engine industry,” Reitz says.

Christie Taylor