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Engineering prof's fuel efficient car engine gets 90 mpg

Published: Thursday, February 7, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 7, 2013 01:02

Fuel economy is something that most people will only think about under two circumstances: filling up a gas tank and stranded on the side of the road with a brightly colored ‘E’ blinking under the dash.

Mark Hotlzapple, professor and head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, has dedicated 15 years of research to the design and production of a more fuel-efficient engine, with hopes that one day it will be used in everyday automobiles.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2011 drivers in the U.S. consumed about 134 billion gallons of gasoline. This makes for an average of just more than 367 million gallons per day.

With this level of consumption, it is becoming increasingly important to pay attention to the issue of fuel economy, especially within the automobile industry.

Jaret Villarreal, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, is hoping to get a job in the automobile industry working with engine and powertrain design upon graduation. Vilarreal said that attention to fuel economy is a critical issue that must be handled as soon as possible.

“With the increasing pollution and decreasing oil supply that comes with fuels today, it is obvious why new technology developments are so important, especially in this field,” Villarreal said. “Engines are constantly being redesigned to be more fuel efficient, cost effective and powerful.”

Holtzapple’s engine itself is being developed by StarRotor, an independent company he founded in March 2001 with Andrew Rabroker, who was a mechanical engineering graduate student at the time.

“This engine would be two to three times more efficient than a regular car engine,” Holtzapple said. “The engine can use any fuel, [it] doesn’t matter what type. It is not only efficient but also small. It will be able to go about 50,000 miles between oil changes and will produce very low pollution. A regular car typically gets about 30 miles per gallon; this engine would get around 70-90 miles per gallon.”

The StarRotor engine will be capable of running on several different fuel types, including gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, diesel, alcohol, methane, hydrogen and vegetable oil, just to name a few.

“The world needs engines with better fuel efficiency, and the fact that [Holtzapple’s] will run off of biomass with that level of efficiency is a step in the right direction,” said Ryan Rice, senior petroleum engineering major.

Even with the extended timeline, Holtzapple is optimistic that he will see his work in the automobile industry in the future.

“We probably will go after stationary applications and maybe military applications first,” Holtzapple said. “Eventually we are hoping to see it in cars. I do believe if we are able to achieve our goal it would revolutionize the transportation industry.”

Despite of the increased awareness about the industry’s fuel problems, funding has become one of the main hurdles to overcome for this project. Holtzapple said that most government agencies and investors are not interested in developing an engine because they are looking for a faster return.

“Technology is just one of the hurdles, financing is the other,” Holtzapple said. “My strategy is to come up with the money myself. I’m inventing a process to turn anything biological into fuel. I can make waste biomass into high quality animal feed and I can desalinate water to make fresh drinking water. But all of these things take a lot of capital and a lot of time.”

Some believe that one of the main reasons investors are cautious is because of the risk of the unknown.

“Investors are hesitant because they know that the technology is out there already, but it hasn’t been used to its full potential,” Villarreal said. “The engine offers very promising results that surpass anything available on the market today, but it’s difficult to buy into that knowing that there is potentially a large margin for failure.”

According to Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency and chair of the World Economic Forum’s Energy Advisory Board, the potential for energy efficiency is huge for the U.S., however much of it remains untapped. Birol said that compared with today, savings from more rigorous fuel-economy standards could prompt a 30 percent fall in U.S. oil demand by 2035.

Holtzapple said a commitment to creating a solution to fuel economy issues should persist in modern and future research projects.

“I’ve been interested in energy since I was about 16 or 17 years old,” Holtzapple said. “We were going through an energy crisis back then. [Now], the two major thrusts of my work are to create new fuels, and to create more fuel-efficient vehicles. As long as the sun is shining this should be the solution to our fuel problems.”


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