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Diversity drives pursuit of better internal-combustion tech

Two things stand out about Department of Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Benjamin Lawler, his research and his team: Even as electric vehicles gain mainstream prominence, the internal-combustion engine (ICE) is not dead – and the people keeping the flame alive might confound expectations.

Far from a stereotypically male-dominated “engine bloc” of gearheads and grease monkeys, Dr. Lawler’s rock stars cover a breadth of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds – a high-octane blend fueling the search for cleaner and more efficient internal-combustion technologies.

“What’s fun and exciting to me is that they’re all from very diverse backgrounds,” the professor says. “I’m from a town with very little diversity, but now I get to work with these students with different backgrounds and different life experiences – and yet we all wound up here, working together to better understand the processes going on inside an internal-combustion engine.”

The come-together motif starts at the top. Dr. Lawler credits his ongoing collaborations with Dr. Sotirios Mamalis – a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and a fellow Department of Mechanical Engineering assistant professor – with broadening his own engineering horizons.

“Our backgrounds were both related to internal-combustion engines, but I was an experimentalist and he was primarily a modeler, doing computer simulations,” Dr. Lawler notes. “We each have complementary skill sets working toward that same goal.”

Like a good engine lubricant, those combined experiences keep the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s motor purring. But it’s the student researchers – four PhD candidates in particular – who really hit the gas, according to Dr. Lawler.

Among those in the driver’s seat is research assistant Mozhgan Rahimi Boldaji, an Iranian graduate student scheduled to finish her PhD in mechanical engineering this spring. A burgeoning expert in computational fluid dynamics simulations, Mozhgan is currently researching an advanced combustion model – created in Dr. Lawler’s lab – promising lower emissions and new ICE efficiencies.

“Current advanced-combustion modes only work over a limited range of operating conditions,” Dr. Lawler notes. “But we’re working on technology that will offer control over a wider range.”

Laboratory demonstrations have proved promising, and as the professor seeks funding for actual vehicle demonstrations, he credits the efforts of researchers like Mozghan, whose “contributions have been incredibly helpful.”

“When I first got to Stony Brook, we had to build the actual lab, and we didn’t have experimental capabilities right away,” the professor says. “But we could get started right away on modeling and simulations, and Mozghan was able to do some of the initial computational fluid dynamics studies, which led to other breakthroughs.”

Similarly successful has been research assistant Deivanayagam Hariharan, also a mechanical engineering PhD candidate, who has been working on advanced combustion modes based on a 2018 patent granted to Drs. Lawler and Sotirios.

Current advanced combustion modes require two different fuels to provide lower emissions and better controls – but “manufacturers don’t like two fuels,” according to Dr. Lawler, who teamed with his primary collaborator to create a “single-parent fuel” that, essentially, reacts to a catalyst that turns the parent fuel into something else.

“Effectively, you have two fuels on board to meet this dual-fuel strategy,” Dr. Lawler says, adding that Deivanayagam – who goes by Deiva – has been “doing phenomenally well” conducting formulation and evaluation experiments. 

“Deiva’s actually conducting a lot of the pioneering experiments for that combustion mode, which really nobody else has studied,” Dr. Lawler notes.

Also breaking new ground is mechanical engineering PhD candidate Yingcong Zhou, who has been working on primary modeling and simulation for what Dr. Lawler describes as a “completely novel engine architecture.”

“There’s nothing like it,” the professor adds, “in production vehicles or anywhere else.”

Absent certain traditional components (a crank shaft, for instance) and generating electricity directly from combustion (as opposed to pairing the engine with a generator), the novel tech could be used as a “range extender” for electric vehicles – and could even be used to store backup juice for electric-vehicle batteries.

“Yingcong has a computer model that can simulate a wide variety of different architectures, operating conditions, fuels, etc., so he can compare the efficiency and the benefits and the drawbacks of each,” Dr. Lawler says. “Right now, we’re trying to maximize efficiency and learn which operational ranges are most efficient.”

Experiment-and-advance also describes that work of mechanical engineering PhD candidate Brian Gainey, who’s picked up where Mozhgan’s computer simulations left off. 

“It took two-plus years to develop the lab, and it made the most sense for Mozghan to start her simulation work right away,” Dr. Lawler notes. “Now Brian is taking some of those results and testing them in our single-cylinder, fully instrumented research engines.”

So far, Brian’s work has shown that the advanced combustion models can deliver low emissions and high efficiency in certain practical applications. But if Drs. Lawler and Sotirios are truly going to fulfill their mission of coexisting with and supporting the electric-vehicle market, diverse groups of researchers like Brian and the rest still have a lot of work ahead. 

“Transportation companies are incredibly risk-adverse, so it takes a lot of time for new technologies to be implemented,” Dr. Lawler notes. “So, the work of these students is incredibly important.

“We have the patents, but they are the ones who do the initial evaluations of these concepts,” he adds. “It’s their work that provides the details and leads to the first published papers.”