Firing on all cylinders

Posted: March 7, 2014

Growing up in Italy, Giorgio Rizzoni was always looking for ways to go faster.

“My idea of a good time was hanging out in the garage with my friends trying to figure out how to get another half horsepower out of an engine,” he said.

Fast forward a few decades, and you’ll find Rizzoni still spending lots of time in a garage. At Ohio State’s Center for Automotive Research (CAR), he directs a program that’s breaking land-speed records while also helping to fuel the future of motor vehicles.

CAR approaches automotive engineering from a systems perspective. Researchers and students dive deep into individual systems and also investigate how systems interconnect and tie into the larger vehicle and supporting infrastructure.
Ohio State established CAR as part of the College of Engineering in 1991, but its most dramatic growth has taken place since Rizzoni took the keys in 1999. Since then, CAR has increased its annual operating budget tenfold to $10 million and has become the largest university-based interdisciplinary automotive research center in the United States.

With Rizzoni behind the wheel, CAR has been on a roll. You might have seen it in the headlines when President Barack Obama stopped in for a tour in March 2012. Or maybe you saw its record-breaking Venturi Buckeye Bullet featured during ABC’s broadcast of the Ohio State-Indiana football game in November. That’s not to mention appearances on the likes of CNN and write-ups in numerous publications across the country.

Under the hood

CAR is equal parts innovation, cooperation, and competition. Some 200 students—most of them engineering majors, but that’s not a requirement—comprise six teams that design and build vehicles to win races and break records, while also learning how to manage every aspect of their projects from concept to conclusion. At the same time, CAR students, staff, and faculty work hand in hand with the automotive industry on research that’s making the vehicles you drive smarter, greener, more powerful, and more efficient.

For example, Rizzoni said, CAR research helped Ford develop its turbo-charged, direct-injection EcoBoost engines that produce more power while generating less pollution. CAR also contributed to the development of software General Motors uses to regulate the air-fuel ratio in its four-cylinder engines for improved combustion control.

Kent Helfrich—who graduated from Ohio State in 1988, in the pre-CAR era—is executive director and global functional leader for electrical systems at GM. He explained that along with teaching engineering essentials such as calculus, chemistry, and differential equations, CAR distinguishes itself by training students to work well with others.

“This is what CAR provides that other university programs do not: big, meaningful, long-term engineering problems to work on,” he said.
It’s electric

Team leaders Matt Yard and Katherine Bovee adjust the gearbox of Ohio State’s entry in the EcoCAR 2 engineering competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors. Photo credit Holly Henley.
One such problem is the EcoCAR 2 Challenge, a three-year competition sponsored by GM, the U.S. Department of Energy, and others in which Ohio State students are competing against teams from 15 other universities. Their goal: to reengineer a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu to increase its fuel economy and minimize emissions—while also making sure it performs well and piques consumer interest.

M.J. Yatsko started working on the EcoCAR team as a summer intern when she was in high school at the Columbus School for Girls. Now, she’s a senior mechanical engineering student and a member of the EcoCAR 2 controls team.

“Working on EcoCAR has been challenging, but I enjoy working on a research project that is developing innovative hybrid vehicle technologies for the automotive industry,” she said.

Yatsko, who will continue her studies at Ohio State after she earns her undergraduate degree, said she’s looking forward to seeing the results of the team’s efforts when the competition ends in June.

While Yatsko grew up in the shadow of Ohio State, Jiyu Zhang of China was drawn to the CAR program from afar. Zhang chose to pursue her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Ohio State because of the university’s “world-famous” reputation and wide range of academic disciplines.

Like Yatsko, Zhang is helping to improve the safety and reliability of electric and hybrid electric vehicles. She said working on such projects allows CAR students to immediately put theories they learn in the classroom into practice in the field.

“I especially enjoy the atmosphere at CAR, where I’m able to be involved in different research teams—working together, thinking together, and improving together with other people,” Zhang said.

Students, alumni, and corporate partners say such collaborative experiences set CAR apart from other programs and make its graduates highly attractive to employers in the automotive industry.

“At GM, we can hire these young engineers, confidently put them in the middle of our most important projects, and know they will hit the ground running,” Helfrich said.

Gary Parker knows exactly what Helfrich is talking about. A product of CAR’s formative years (he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1995 and a master’s in ’97), Parker was recruited by Cummins, a global engine company based in Indiana, more than 16 years ago. Now a director of powertrain systems at Cummins, Parker spent much time recruiting CAR students to join him there—and more than 70 of them have.

“Cummins looks at all the places they recruit from every year,” Parker said. “Performance of employees in the company is a big factor, and performance of Buckeye engineers within Cummins has been very strong.”

Smokin’ the competition
CAR is perhaps best known for its forays into electric racing. It all started in the 1990s with the Smokin’ Buckeye, an open-wheel race car powered by 31 lead-acid batteries. The Smokin’ Buckeye dominated the collegiate Formula Lightning series, winning more than half the races it entered.

Parker was part of the car’s winning team during the 1994–95 season. And his senior project—designing a land-speed-record vehicle using the Smokin’ Buckeye’s components—may have influenced CAR’s subsequent efforts, most notably the Venturi Buckeye Bullet.

“I think it helped whet Giorgio’s appetite for that need for speed,” said Parker, who worked for Rizzoni in the engine lab before CAR had its own facility on west campus.

The 2013 Venturi Buckeye Bullet team at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Photo credit Denis Boussard/Venturi Automobiles
In the past 14 years, under Rizzoni’s direction, CAR students have built three of the fastest electric vehicles ever made, and a fourth is in development. "

From 2000 to 2002, undergraduates designed and built Buckeye Bullet 1, a 4,000-pound machine powered by 2,000 pounds of nickel metal hydride batteries. In October 2004, it set U.S. and inter-national records (314.958 mph and 271.737 mph, respectively) for an electric battery car. It was retired after those runs, but its records still stand today.

Next, CAR tackled hydrogen fuel cells to propel Buckeye Bullet 2. Ed Hillstrom, who earned two degrees from Ohio State—a master’s in 2003 and a Ph.D. in 2010—led the fuel cell team on that project and designed the car’s cooling system. He’s now a senior engineer at AFCC (Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation) in Vancouver, British Columbia.

In September 2009, Hillstrom was at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah when the Buckeye Bullet 2 broke 300 mph for the first time on the fifth of six runs that day. It needed a repeat per-formance on the last run to officially break the fuel cell record.

“All I could do was sit there with my eyes closed and head down and wait to hear the announcer,” said Hillstrom, who was behind the wheel of the chase vehicle for the last run. “Hearing the announcer read 303.7 mph in the mile was probably the greatest achievement of my life.”

After fuel cells, CAR turned to lithium ion batteries. And in August 2010, the Venturi Buckeye Bullet 2.5 became the fastest lithium ion battery–powered vehicle when it set the international record at 307.66 mph.

Since that time, CAR’s student-led team has been building the Venturi Buckeye Bullet 3, which is set to run this August at Bonneville. With two symmetric drivelines powering both the front and rear axles, it’s designed to top 400 mph and break even more records in the process.


Beyond the Bullet

CAR students also participate on the Buckeye Current electric motorcycle team, as well as the Baja, Formula, and Supermileage SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) teams.

Evan Bunner, a junior majoring in city and regional planning, is team captain of the Formula Buckeyes. He said working on CAR’s teams requires a lot of time above and beyond hours in the classroom, but it’s well worth it.

“CAR is in the business of discovering and prob-lem solving. The students who participate receive a wealth of knowledge and a definite head start into the industry,” he said.

Bunner said one highlight of his time at CAR has been traveling to Germany in 2012 to compete against 76 of the best Formula teams in the world—many of which were essentially minor league Formula 1 teams with big budgets. Finishing in the middle of the pack was a major accomplishment.

“Being able to compete on a global scale with the world’s very best Formula teams was an awesome experience,” he said.

Last June, the Buckeye Current team turned heads when its electric motorcycle placed third in a race against professional teams on the Isle of Man. The British territory in the Irish Sea is home to a prestigious racing course where the Buckeye Current clocked an average speed in excess of 90 mph and was the fastest collegiate entrant.

Rizzoni said the top two teams at the Isle of Man spent more than $4 million on their bikes, while the CAR team built its entry for a mere $50,000.

Student success with the Buckeye Current, Venturi Buckeye Bullet, Formula SAE, and other race teams provides priceless visibility and serves as a great recruiting tool for the CAR program and Ohio State’s College of Engineering, Rizzoni said.

“What Ohio State has enabled is one of a kind,” he said. “I honestly don’t think there’s another program in the country that has accomplished what we have in our domain—automotive engineering. We need to send a message that we are the best in the business, and let’s be proud of it.”

Written by Bob Beasley. Reprinted with permission from the January/February 2014 issue of Ohio State Alumni Magazine.