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Alternative Education:
JMU Lab Takes a Multi-perspective Approach to Transportation Fuels

Dan Armstrong, JMU Public Affairs

From the scrap heap to the record books

The ECYCLE, an electrically powered motorcycle, is the brainchild of a team of James Madison University students from the School of Integrated Science and Technology, the School of Engineering and Dr. Robert Prins, assistant professor of engineering. Read more.


Bicycles that Run on Electricity

Electric-assist bicycles may be the future of transportation around JMU’s campus. Read more.


Lighter, Faster, Longer: Supermileage vehicle

Knowing that ready petroleum supply is due to run out in some 25 years, Chris Bachmann and a team of JMU students have set out to build a super-mileage vehicle to make sure motorists are getting the most out of every last drop. Read more.


Truck conversion illuminates new perspectives

At first glance, the Chevrolet S-10 looks like nothing more than your everyday pickup truck. But what lies beneath is something much smoother, quieter and healthier than your normal Chevy—it’s electric. Read more.


Baja racer showcases the power of human energy

There are some things best taught in the classroom. Others can be learned only through hands-on experience—like building a vehicle from scratch. Read more.

Pragmatic scientists engage a problem and work to find the solution.

But when a problem is as complex as the United States' mounting dependence on an ever-dwindling oil supply, there's not just one solution.

That's how the diverse team at the James Madison University Alternative Fuel Vehicle Lab approaches the issue-many fuel sources, many perspectives.

"That's something that's wonderful about ISAT is that we look at the problem from all the different perspectives," said Dr. Chris Bachmann, director of the AFV Lab and associate professor of integrated science and technology. "And we try to acknowledge all of those different opportunities and options."


The Ignition

When Madison Scholar last checked in with the AFV, the relatively small operation was active in research on biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol production using algae and fungi.

The work was valuable in investigating possible fluid alternatives to petroleum, and some cellulose and biodiesel projects are still underway.

One recent research project led a team of ISAT students to genetically modify a strain of yeast with fungal DNA that would allow it to breakdown cellulosic material as the basis for ethanol fuel.

"The United States does have a goal to increase our ethanol production, but we don't want to do any more with food. We've maxed that out," Bachmann said. "So anything above and beyond that is going to have to come from other sources. And the cellulosic material is one of those options."

Though the research ultimately did not yield a viable end product, the learning value of the work caught the eye of students and industry players alike.

"It was a total biotech application toward solving the energy crisis," Bachmann said. "That's something the industry really wants."

Projects such as the JMU bio-trike have become well-known fixtures at campus events and have proved a valuable tool to raise awareness of alternative energy efforts at JMU. But any vision of an energy-independent future includes a heavy emphasis on electric power, Bachmann said.


It's Electric

The United States has demonstrated its ability to produce electricity for use in industrial and municipal grids from renewable sources. Such technology works and must be part of the solution to the energy crisis, Bachmann said.

But the transportation sector stands in stark contrast to other major energy users in that more than 90 percent of the world's vehicles are reliant on one energy source-petroleum.

Listen to Bachmann explain the incredible power of gasoline as an energy source.

"One of the reasons why electric is attractive is because all of the forms of renewable energy we're looking at-wind, solar, hydroelectric, tidal, nuclear, you name it-they make electrons. They don't make a liquid you can put in a gas tank." Bachmann said. "So if you have something that can handle those, you're going to be much better off, rather than trying to turn those electrons into something else."

Among the electric projects the lab has worked on recently are a fully electric truck converted from an old gasoline engine for workers at Shenandoah National Park, a set of electric-assist bicycles that could be used by students on campus and an electric motorcycle converted from a 1960's-era bike that recently set a land-speed record at the East Coast Timing Association.

The "e-cycle" garnered some attention in the racing world in October when a student team reached more than 70 mph on the motorcycle they converted from a small 1968 gas-powered Sears 124cc motorcycle. In addition to turning some heads at the ECTA, the students got first-hand knowledge in engineering and design as well as project cost and management.

"The students will evaluate each improvement in terms of expected speed increase, projected cost and projected time required," said  Dr. Robert Prins, assistant professor of engineering. "They'll implement the most efficient improvements in hopes to increase the ECTA record once again."

Listen to Bachmann discuss an innovative idea to use electric vehicles as energy storage devices.

The new era of alternative fuels requires consideration of mechanical and technological needs as well as social, economic and managerial perspectives.

That multidisciplinary approach is what has fueled the success of both JMU's ISAT program and the growth of the AFV. In addition to Prins, who began working with the AFV upon his joining the engineering faculty in 2007, science historian Dr. Jeff Tang has also joined the team to engage the social context of science.

That means conducting research before, during and after projects to help ensure projects meet needs, are understandable, accessible and accepted by to society.

"I try to get the students to think about, 'what does this mean for people?' said Tang, an assistant professor of ISAT and coordinator of the science, technology and society minor. "It's fine to make a biodiesel trike and it's kind of cool, and people go to look at it, but why are you doing it? With a lot of the vehicles, we want to at least try out things that might be usable in society."

With the electric conversion for national park rangers, Tang helped designers understand and integrate the perceptions and needs of the rangers. After the vehicle is turned over to the park, he will lead follow-up research on how the new vehicle is used and liked.

Tang is also working with a multidisciplinary team of professors and students on a project to research perceptions of electric vehicles in the culture of professional racing.

"A key thing with a lot of alternative fuel vehicles has been do they work in the way people expect them to work? And if not, if there's something different about it, have you done a good enough job explaining to them what the differences are so they know what to expect?"


Steering the Conversation

Many of the lab's vehicles have begun as ISAT or engineering class projects, but the individuals who make up project teams come from majors as diverse as industrial design, art, business, computer science, math and media arts and design.

Other contributors have returned after academic careers at JMU to pitch in on projects. Peter Denbigh, an ISAT alumnus who is now working on his master's degree in ISAT, was instrumental in administering the grant that led to the Shenandoah National Park conversion, and MBA alumnus Dan Drumheller has donated time and equipment from his successful machining shop, Valley Precision.

Drumheller also serves as project advisor on the lab's mini-Baja racer project. The racer will compete in the Society of Automotive Engineers competitions throughout the year. The competitions have traditionally been limited to gasoline-powered vehicles, but the team is petitioning to allow alternative fuels, including propane, a resource that is abundant in Virginia.

Outreach efforts such as racing competitions, vehicle demonstrations and open houses help the lab extend its efforts to people on and off campus, and hopefully, generate some interest and awareness of energy issues.

"We really have to get everyone on board. And the education is a huge, huge part of it all. That fits with JMU's overall mission is that it's really education," Bachmann said.

Bachmann said the lab will continue engaging in partnerships with the JMU Institute for Stewardship of the Natural World, SAE, Virginia Clean Cities and other groups to help shape the landscape of alternative fuels. It's a fun and exciting challenge for students, but also an important one.

"It's not trivial. It's actually very, very hard to find something that can replace oil," Bachmann said. "That's why we're plugging away at it here at the AFV. Not because it's easy, but because it's something that really needs to be done."

Published November 2009