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College of Engineering students build battery-powered pickup truck.

The gold Ford Ranger glides across the parking lot whisper quiet, with no more sound than the hum of its tires.

Wraithlike as it moves outside the Samuel H. Jones Innovation Center, the EV Ranger, as students and faculty from the College of Engineering call it, looks almost normal. It is a 2003 pickup with matching gold cap and the only aberration is a slight droop in the rear from 800 pounds of batteries in the bed.

“It’s still very much a prototype,” explained Dr. Krishan Bhatia, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering. “But it does run. The goal is to use it as a daily driver.”

Dr. Bhatia, whose undergraduate clinic students designed the conversion from gas to electric and began the work last year, has a new group of students who are continuing the project, fine-tuning the electrical components to make the vehicle practical and dependable.

Dr. Bhatia said aside from the electric traction motor – a power plant more commonly found in forklifts – the EV’s drivetrain is pretty much standard.
“Keeping it cool is the big thing,” he said. “We don’t have a radiator so keeping air moving over it is important.”

Another, perhaps greater challenge, is maintaining enough battery power. The EV (Electric Vehicle) can develop a full charge from a standard outlet overnight but can travel only 30 to 40 miles before needing another charge.

“The calculations show we should be able to get 40 but we haven’t yet been able to fully test its range,” Dr. Bhatia said.

Though it runs smooth and quiet, the EV Ranger is not, for the time being, big on creature comforts. There is no heat, no A/C and no power steering, but it does have power brakes (which are driven by vacuum pumps, not electricity.)

Clinically speaking

The clinic program within the College of Engineering features dozens of projects each year in which students work on real world problems. In 2010-11, four students are assigned to the EV Ranger project.

“It’s given me a good feel for the entire design process,” said Jonathan Goodz, 22, a senior mechanical engineering major from Westville.

Jacob Scholz, 21, a senior ME major from Clayton, said the project was way more involved than swapping out the gas engine for an electric motor.

“It was extremely involved,” he said. “Initial calculations included the amount of power needed to get up to highway cruising speed. Then there was the range, the size of the battery pack, the design of ripping the motor out and putting the new one in.”

“It’s definitely a unique project,” said Jeffrey Terebey, 21, a senior ME major from Shamong. “This is something that will stand out on a resume.”
 
Costly juice

The EV Ranger is powered by 12 standard 12-volt car batteries but state-of-the-art electric vehicles, such as the forthcoming Chevy Volt and Tesla Roadster, use lithium-ion batteries, the same general type used in laptop computers.

Dr. Bhatia said the greatest single cost in building commercially viable all-electric vehicles comes from the batteries. He said the battery pack for the Volt, Tesla or new Nissan LEAF will cost in the range of $20,000 or more. Likewise, he said, while the life expectancy for an electric motor could be 100,000 miles or more, the batteries to power them aren’t expected to last nearly as long but the ubiquity of cell phones and laptops is driving research to make them better and cheaper.

Unlike many high-tech projects within the College of Engineering for which external funding is sometimes available, the EV Ranger was funded almost entirely from within. Most of the roughly $10,000 needed to convert the vehicle from V-6 -powered truck to electric came from Dr. Jess Everett, Professor of Environmental and Civil Engineering, who also owns the truck.

Dr. Everett, whose research interests include sustainable design, solid and hazardous waste management and site remediation, seeks to use the truck as he would any other – except, of course, for the gas stops and tailpipe emissions.

“I believe we all need to do what we can to reduce our carbon output to minimize human-caused climate change,” he said. “Many of my trips are only a few miles, so I'll be able to use the vehicle for many of my weekly trips when I don't ride a bike. I also thought it would be a good project for the students. I hope to upgrade the battery pack in a few years and increase the range.”

For now the truck remains a work in transit but Dr. Bhatia said it’s been an ideal learning tool.

“Our clinic motto is design, analyze, build, test,” he said. “With the EV Ranger we had to design all of the components, how they fit together, and had to analyze everything. We’ve obviously built it and now we’re going to test it.”

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