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Consortium gives small engine industry an edge

Jaal Ghandhi. Photo: Nick Berard.

Motorboats. Lawnmowers. Motorcycles.

Sure—they are among the most ubiquitous “vehicles” of summer.

Yet in Wisconsin, they share another commonality: The small engines that power those boats, mowers and bikes are part of a key Wisconsin industry.

In fact, the small engine industry is among the largest state industries.

Small engines are those that operate at less than 25 horsepower or are intended for non-road uses. Emissions standards play a big role in these little engines. Since the 1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has limited hydrocarbon, nitric oxide, and carbon monoxide emissions, with new standards rolling out about every eight years.

Jaal Ghandhi, Grainger Professor of Sustainable Energy, chair of the mechanical engineering department and director of the UW-Madison Wisconsin Small Engine Consortium, says small engine manufacturers generally have a harder time applying technology to help them meet those standards. “When you buy a lawnmower for $100, there’s not a lot of money in the engine,” says Ghandhi. “When you buy a car for $20,000, there is a lot more money available for the technology in the engine. Modern cars are very, very clean, and that’s a function of the computer control and the three-way catalyst. But with most of these small-engine applications, you just can’t add that cost to the engine to clean it up.”

 Graduate students Javier Vera, Kenneth Kim and Michael Tess. Photo: Nick Berard.

These issues inspired the creation of the consortium. Since 1993, it has leveraged the unique expertise of the UW-Madison Engine Research Center to help Wisconsin small engine manufacturers improve their products. “They collectively have a need and they collectively work in a space that is different from automotive engines,” says Ghandhi.

Consortium member companies include the engines and generators division of Kohler Corp. in Kohler; Cummins Power Generation, which produces gas generators nationally, and whose emissions group is located in Stoughton; Fond du Lac-based boat engine manufacturer Mercury Marine; and Harley Davidson of Milwaukee.

Each company has different products with varying specifications and emissions standards. As a result, says Ghandhi, the power of the consortium lies in fundamental research—not so much to address specific problems, but to provide tools and knowledge to help each company tackle emission problems on its own. “So if we dig into a problem, we can identify the key variables that are controlling it, and provide tools and techniques for trying to assess which of these is controlling in your specific case,” Ghandhi says.

For example, consortium researchers develop tools to allow a company to analyze what emissions factors are most relevant to a particular type of engine. For years, they have studied hydrocarbon emissions, the product of unburned fuel. They have developed a knowledge base, as well as tools that companies can use to reduce hydrocarbon emissions.

Currently, graduate student Javier Vera is continuing a longstanding project to reduce hydrocarbon emissions that result from fuel trapped in small crevices in the piston ring pack. Michael Tess is studying fluid mechanics and how they change when engines are scaled to different sizes. And Kenneth Kim is working on a model for predicting engine knocking.

Ghandhi says the consortium is a good example of how the university extends its knowledge into the state. “It’s a big industry in the state, it’s the expertise of the university, and it’s really the Wisconsin Idea in action,” he says.

The consortium also educates technical experts in small engines and provides students a pipeline to industry jobs.

Eric Hudak was one such hire. As a graduate student, he focused on direct fuel injection in two-stroke engines. Now, he is a senior product manager in the Kohler small engines division—and an important link in the chain that connects the consortium research to Kohler products. “We’ve hired about a half-dozen students within our organization from the consortium,” he says. “It is direct training that is directly applicable.”

Kohler derives the greatest benefits from the consortium’s emissions and performance focus—in particular, its studies of fuel system design and injection and how to cool engines more efficiently.

For the company, membership in the consortium is a worthwhile endeavor.

In fact, thanks to the consortium, Kohler has leveraged new ideas to help meet emissions standards and is in the process of meeting ever-rising federal emissions standards for the third time. Technology the company develops now will help it meet 2016 standards, which could include the first-ever carbon dioxide requirements.

And though member companies each bring distinct challenges to the consortium, Hudak says monthly meetings enable them to discuss issues they have in common.

“I think it’s been a pretty strong and unique relationship,” he says. “We all realize we have limited resources; we’re somewhat smaller than some of the bigger research companies. This has been helpful to us being successful, keeping jobs in the state, and being more competitive against foreign firms.”

Christie Taylor
12/17/2013