The Road Ahead

IEEE student members are working on a variety of EV projects

9 September 2011

It's no secret that electric and hybrid vehicles face a bumpy road toward popular acceptance. Luckily, there’s a great deal of interest among the present generation of engineering students that could make EVs the way to go.
 The Institute received dozens of responses to a call for student members working on EV projects. Here’s what some of them have been up to.


When IEEE Student Member James Lubow started his senior design class this year at Marquette University, in Milwaukee, he knew exactly what he wanted to work on: the eLimo project begun in 2007 by students in the university’s college of engineering to convert a campus Ford E350 van into an EV. The van belongs to a fleet of shuttles that carry students around campus for free.

“The goal was to decrease the cost of running the vans, which get approximately 5 miles per gallon, mainly because of all the stops they make,” Lubow says. “EVs use very little energy while stopped.”

Funding for the project came from various sources, including a US $65 000 grant from the Wisconsin Clean Cities program, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities initiative. The eLimo project continued each semester, with new groups of senior design-class students working to improve the van. Earlier this year, Lubow, an electrical engineering major, and a team of students set out to finish the conversion.

Previous teams had already removed the internal combustion engine, installed an electric motor, built the controls and the vacuum system for the power brakes, and performed other tasks. Lubow’s team tackled the remaining technical challenges: designing the power system that drives the motor and a user interface to monitor power, speed, and odometer readings. “In addition, we had to come up with a charging station that can be used almost anywhere,” he says.

An adviser was on hand throughout the project. The students got additional guidance from Wisconsin Clean Cities representatives. By the end of the semester in May, the team had completed the conversion.

Lubow sees the eLimo as an advertisement for EVs. “We hope students riding the van will start thinking about EVs as a greener alternative to gasoline power,” he says. “The van will also be used as a recruitment tool at local high schools. Even if we don’t pique a student’s interest in attending Marquette, we’re getting out the word on EVs.”

Student Member Isaac Thompson, an electrical engineering undergrad at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, also stepped into an ongoing project this year: upgrading an electric snowmobile. Begun two years ago by a graduate student at the university, the project offers engineering students the chance to refurbish an off-the-shelf snowmobile and compete annually in the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Clean Snowmobile Challenge. The goal of the contest is to reduce the snowmobile’s emissions and noise while maintaining or boosting its performance.

“Each year we fix things that hadn’t worked well in the previous year’s competition,” Thompson says. “The biggest challenge this year was setting up all the control features. It was pretty easy to install an electric motor in place of the gas engine, but to set up all of the controls, relays, and safety switches was quite a job.”

Thompson’s team took fourth place at the competition, held in March at Michigan Technological University, in Houghton. Seven teams competed. 

A snowmobile wasn’t the only EV Thompson worked on this year. He and a group of students developed an electric trike—a three-wheeled motorcycle—and competed in the annual Shell Eco-Marathon held in April in Houston [photo above]. The event challenges student teams from around the world to build and test all sorts of energy-efficient vehicles. The team whose vehicle goes the farthest using the least amount of energy wins.

By the time they had signed up for the competition, Thompson’s team only had two weeks to build the trike, which started with the frame of a 2011 KMX Tornado F3.

The team placed seventh out of 12, “which we felt was pretty good for such a short build time,” Thompson says. For both of his projects, “our goal was to demonstrate that EVs are much more efficient and can still be extremely sporty and useful.”

Graduate Student Member Adarsh Nagarajan, who is studying power electronics and systems at the University of Houston, is focusing on using renewable energy sources to help power plug-in hybrid EVs (PHEVs). For the past two years, he has been researching the feasibility and advantages of integrating PHEVs in grid-connected photovoltaic systems to optimize the flow of power to the cars as well as the residential load.

Nagarajan has finished the first part of the project, which involved using MATLAB and Simulink to figure out how a PHEV could be charged using a grid-connected photovoltaic system.

Now he is working on implementing the logic to control the charging of the battery using a digital signal processor–based microcontroller that he plans to test in a ­grid-connected photovoltaic system. “The controller generates switching signals for the power conditioning unit to ensure that the source from which the load is catered is right,” he says. 

There’s no better time than now to work on a project that seeks to make use of alternative energy sources, he says: “With the rising price of fossil fuels, an increase in the use of electrical energy, and growing global awareness of our ecosystem, it’s prime time to search for ways to optimize the generation, storage, and use of electric power.”


Powering PHEVs is also the focus of Student Member Rohollah Dosthosseini’s work. The Ph.D. student at Isfahan University of Technology, in Iran, has spent the past three years developing a computer program for determining the optimal way to manage power in HEVs.

Dosthosseini’s approach involves reducing the optimal control in the vehicles to a set of algebraic equations. “Our approximating procedure makes the problem of managing power much easier, because it’s less computationally complex than current methods, such as dynamic and nonlinear programming,” he says. “The direct-method approach I use changes differential equations to algebraic equations.” That makes solving the optimal power management problem much easier, he says.

A research paper he wrote, “Direct Method for Optimal Power Management in Hybrid Electric Vehicles,” was recently accepted for publication in the International Journal of Automotive Technology.

Next, Dosthosseini says, he hopes to take his method out of the lab and test it on a real HEV. “I have found that there are a lot of gaps in current research in HEVs,” he says. “I hope to continue my project and introduce better power management controls.”

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