June 23, 2004

Engine project may pay big dividends

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Research starting this summer at Southern Illinois University Carbondale could lead to groundbreaking engine advancements that provide more power, greater fuel efficiency and reduced emissions.

Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc. donated two U.S. patents, several foreign patents and $85,000 in associated funds for research and development of a mono-valve engine. Engines now have two or four valves to take air in and out of each cylinder; the research at SIUC will focus on air flowing in and out of a cylinder through a single valve.

"We are grateful for Caterpillar's confidence in SIUC," said Rickey N. McCurry, SIUC's vice chancellor for institutional advancement. "We have had a long and extremely valuable relationship with the company, which continues to invest in our faculty and students."

This is Caterpillar's first donation of intellectual property to SIUC.

"This says they have a lot of trust in us to accept the property and develop it," George M. Swisher, dean of the College of Engineering, said. "We feel good about it."

The timing of the project could not be better. Last month, the Bush administration approved new rules for reducing diesel-powered machine emissions by 90 percent over the next 26 years by combining new diesel engine technologies with reduced sulfur content in diesel fuel.

Establishing relationships with private industry and promoting the University as a research institution of high quality are among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Suri Rajan, professor in mechanical engineering and energy processes, will lead the research.

There could be numerous advantages to a mono-valve design, including continuous maximum operating efficiency at all engine speeds, Rajan said.

The technology, which is not available now, could ultimately have applications for large trucks and diesel machinery, such as road graders, farm equipment and locomotives.

While Caterpillar is looking at four-stroke diesel engine applications, there is also a two-stroke version (small gasoline lawn mowers, small portable electric generators and larger diesel engines) and four-stroke (almost all automobile engines) version of the patent that could be applied to gasoline engines, said Rajan.

He expects designing, building and testing the prototype will take a couple of years. That includes time to develop controls to make engines reach peak performance, and other mechanical components.

Rajan anticipates mono-valve engines will be smaller and lighter but deliver a faster response.

If the prototype is successful, Rajan estimates it may be another few years before the engine could be commercially available.

"There are certainly big challenges in getting something to work because this is new," he said. "And whenever something new is developed, something comes up that you haven't foreseen and you might have to overcome that challenge."

Undergraduate and graduate students will participate in the research and development project, and the manufacture of the prototype engine will take place in the department's fabrication shop and engine laboratory.

"I'm really excited," said Rajan. "I have always wanted to work on new designs of engines and this is a good opportunity to get involved in something that is really on the cutting edge.

"I'm also excited because it has a lot of benefits -- both for the University and for the common man," he said. "If we can build a better engine that gives, you say, five miles more per gallon, per day, we will be saving so many millions of barrels of oil. I am looking forward to it."

Rajan is confident the project can succeed.

"I would say that 10 years ago we might not have been able to do this. But now, with computers and modern control methods, this is just about the right time for it. So I think we have a very good chance."

The process for obtaining the patents began in spring 2002 when Caterpillar officials approached SIUC about their research and intellectual property donations, said Jeff Myers, senior technology transfer specialist in SIUC's Office of Research Development and Administration. Caterpillar's decision to donate the patents, along with the associated research funds, is a "ratification that we do have a strong commercialization technology program, and we do, even as a growing research institution, properly manage, market and license them."

SIUC and Caterpillar have a long-standing relationship. Many SIUC alumni work for Caterpillar, and the company's vice president and chief financial officer, F. Lynn McPheeters, is a 1964 SIUC graduate. He is also a member of the SIU Foundation board.

If successful, the donation could potentially earn significant royalties, Myers said.