Bend start-up gets $3.6M to drive compressed natural gas work

Goal Is to Make the Vehicle Itself the CNG Compressor

Bend, Ore.-based Onboard Dynamics has received federal and local funding for a $3.6 million effort to commercialize an elegant concept: using the engine on a natural gas vehicle to compress the gas needed to run the vehicle.

The CNG-gasoline engine in the truck would be able to compress its own natural gas fuel, and perhaps provide it to other NGVs as well, says Onboard Dynamics.
The CNG-gasoline engine in the truck would be able to compress its own natural gas fuel, and perhaps provide it to other NGVs as well, says Onboard Dynamics.

The idea is for the engine to run on some of its cylinders while the others are used to compress the fuel. In that way fuel can be drawn from low-pressure lines, with no need for a costly compressed natural gas fueling station.

“You’ve eliminated the infrastructure problem,” says Onboard co-founder and engineering VP Jeff Witwer. Onboard’s proof-of-concept vehicle had a 5.9-liter Cummins engine converted to spark-ignition, with one its six cylinders used as a compressor.

Four Out of Eight Next

“The next version will be four cylinders of an eight cylinder engine,” Witwer says. The choice of a Chrysler, Ford or GM platform for Onboard’s next phase is to be made in the coming weeks.

The ‘dual-mode’ cylinders would revert to normal spark operation when fuel compression is completed.
The ‘dual-mode’ cylinders would revert to normal spark operation when fuel compression is completed.
Onboard has been awarded $2.88 million through the U.S. DoE’s ARPA-E/Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy initiative, says company co-founder and CEO Rita Hansen. The required cost-share for the $3.6 million total, she says, came from a combination of private investors and Oregon backers. They include Oregon BEST (the Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center) and ONAMI, the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute.

The new money will enable an 18-month commercialization effort.

Onboard says that outfitting a natural gas vehicle to be able to fuel itself from low-pressure lines will be economical. “We’re pretty sure it would add less than $1,000 to the cost of a CNG vehicle,” Witwer says. A modern engine has something on the order of 4,000 parts, he explains. Onboard would change only about 100 of them.

‘Enabling the Compressor That’s Already in Your Engine’

“We’re taking a mass-produced compressor and re-programming it,” Witwer told F&F. “We’re enabling the compressor that’s already in your engine.”

The modified cylinders would be “bi-modal,” he says. They would revert to their normal spark-ignition function when it was time for the vehicle to be on its way.

Dr. Chris Hagen’s team at OSU-Cascades
Dr. Chris Hagen’s team at OSU-Cascades
Onboard has thus far worked with CNG-gasoline bi-fuel vehicles and will do so for its next phase. Hansen and Witwer concur that potential fleet customers prefer the bi-fuel approach.

Onboard Dynamics’ third co-founder is Chris Hagen, an assistant professor at Oregon State University’s Cascades Campus in Bend. He and his students developed a working prototype of the in-engine compression technology, having been helped, according to Oregon BEST, by an ARPA-E investment of $1 million in 2012.

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