The University of Alabama

Built with the Future in Mind

South Engineering Research Complex

By Adam Jones and Katy Echols

When deciding how to design the new Engines and Combustion Laboratory to make it a leading academic research lab, the discussion kept returning to Ford Motor Co.’s Scientific Research Laboratory, a leading industry lab that works on cleaner, safer and more fuel-efficient vehicles.

“We got in a plane and went to Detroit to look at it,” said Dr. John Wiest, associate dean for research and graduate studies. “We don’t have as large a facility, but it’s modeled after the lab at Ford research.”

Given one chance to re-create the lab from scratch in the new South Engineering Research Complex, designers felt the lab needed to be attractive for industry needs, not only to advance the research into practical uses, but also to ensure students were trained in a lab built with their future employers in mind.

“This will make us more competitive in writing grant proposals,” said Dr. Clark Midkiff, professor and interim department head of mechanical engineering and director of The University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Vehicle Technologies. “It brings the capability to do larger, more industry-sought research.”

The lab brings together at least five faculty and eight other collaborators from the College of Engineering. It combines and expands previous lab space, mostly in Hardaway Hall, and greatly updates research space while encouraging collaboration. The lab is in the south end of SERC, almost a building within a building with its own ventilation, environmental control system and buffers to minimize vibrations from engine testing to the rest of SERC. A fuel-storage area sits outside SERC, detached, but near the doors of the Engines and Combustion Lab.

New equipment in the lab saves faculty from including equipment costs in grant proposals.

Inside the lab, a long two-story corridor is lined with six test cells and accompanying instrument rooms between each. On one end of the corridor are large, forklift-accessible doors to the loading area between Houser Hall and SERC. Opposite those doors are clean and rough assembly areas, project space and storage racks.

The lab has a 660 horsepower, 2,300-pound-foot torque, 6,000 rpm diesel-rated AC dynamometer capable of handling all but the largest over-the-road truck engines. There is also a dual-roller, 350-horsepower chassis dynamometer that can hold up to 14,000 pounds, bringing the lab capability to test most any front-wheel-drive, rear-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive vehicle. There is also an emissions-dilution tunnel and gas-analysis system. The chassis dynamometer and dilution tunnel means the College can perform certification-standards emission testing that nearly mimics the testing required by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The new lab means faculty will not have to include the cost of equipment purchase in grant proposals, a roadblock to several grants in the past, Midkiff said. “We will have capabilities that are as good as any lab in the region,” he said.

With equipment and infrastructure a reason to win grants and contracts, instead of a possible challenge to an award, the College’s crucial work in renewable energy and cleaner combustion can accelerate.

The lab includes Dr. Ajay Agrawal, the Robert F. Barfield Endowed Chair in Mechanical Engineering. He is currently working on several sustainable energy projects with funding from the Department of Energy and the U.S. Navy. Agrawal is exploring how to develop and use domestic energy sources. His primary goal is to improve fuel utilization and sustainability as it pertains to the efficiency and cleanliness of fuel combustion.

“Finding sustainable energy sources is a major issue for the United States because we depend on foreign sources for our fuel, which not only creates environmental concerns, but also the fear that the source will run out,” Agrawal said.

The lab also includes Dr. Brian Fisher, who recently joined the department of mechanical engineering as an assistant professor, whose research includes the use of lasers to measure the distribution of gasses in the combustion process, revealing the rate of combustion and how much a desirable, or less desirable, gas is being produced.

Fisher joins established faculty, including Dr. Marcus Ashford, associate professor and former powertrain engineer at Ford, and Dr. Paul Puzinauskas, associate professor, who worked for General Motors. Fisher researches advanced combustion-engine concepts, alternative fuels and hydrogen engines, engine control and combustion and fire science. Puzinauskas is researching how to improve optical-combustion-diagnostic capabilities and apply them to internal-combustion-engine analysis; optimizing internal-combustion engines used for hybrid-electric-vehicle applications; and improving the understanding of the combustion kinetics controlling emission formation in diesel-spray combustion.