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Speed students conduct electric vehicle research in unlikely place

by Janene Zaccone, communications and marketing last modified Sep 03, 2013 02:22 PM

The ground floor of a parking garage might seem an unlikely research lab, but for students at the University of Louisville’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering it’s been an ideal location to conduct research on vehicles powered by electricity.

Speed students conduct electric vehicle research in unlikely place

Speed students modified a hybrid Prius to be a plug-in. It serves as one test bed for the school's research.

Undergraduate and graduate students are looking for ways to make such cars more practical to use for both consumers and businesses. The research platforms at the Floyd Street garage include four GE charging stations with Physical Plant’s electric Chevrolet Volts attached and a Toyota Prius hybrid modified with a battery pack to be a plug-in. Two charging stations at the Physical Plant office and faculty-owned electric vehicles further extend the test bed.

The research is only a small part of all that the Speed School is conducting in energy resources, said John Naber, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE).

Senior engineering students modified the hybrid Prius by installing a 20-battery pack and plug-in conversion kit. For two years, the school has used the vehicle for the undergraduate capstone experience, said Michael McIntyre, ECE assistant professor. Projects have included performance assessments before and after modification and development of a battery management system which could, among other functions, cut off the system if necessary.

“It is a project-rich environment,” McIntyre said of the car.

ECE master’s student Joe Latham is using the Prius to continue his undergraduate research. As an undergraduate, Latham develop a sensor to use with the battery pack. Now his focus is developing an algorithm to use the data from the sensor to determine state of charge and state of health of in the individual batteries.

If one battery were to fail in that pack, performance might diminish, he said, but even worse, a failed battery could ignite.

For safety reasons, the car’s driver needs to know when one of them is failing, Latham said.

Doctoral student Nick Jewell is studying a different aspect of electric-powered cars.

Jewell is developing a system to regulate UofL’s charging stations during peak demand times so their use doesn’t increase the university’s electricity demand. Large users of electricity in Louisville pay both a peak demand charge and an actual energy charge, and the demand charges can be more than half of a typical monthly electric bill, Naber explained.

The system Jewell is working on will sense or forecast the overall electricity demand on Belknap Campus and turn off individual charging stations until the demand drops. A longer-term goal is for the system to sense which stations to have priority to remain on based on a car’s state of charge.

In effect, Jewell said, he is taking existing charging infrastructure and “trying to make it more user-friendly and cost-effective for the university.”

On Aug. 13, President James Ramsey and Provost Shirley Willihnganz learned firsthand about the students’ work. They even test-drove the Volts.

“Again, the University of Louisville’s outstanding Speed School of Engineering is a leader in electric car technologies,” Ramsey said of what he learned. “We are proud of the work of the Speed School in addressing important sustainability issues.”

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