Winter 2018

Revved up


The room looks like a mad scientist’s lab: Tangles of colored wires and hoses reach like tentacles from a silver and black John Deere tractor engine, tethering it to a double-ended dynamometer, an instrument that absorbs power much like the wheels of a vehicle.

As the big engine hums, a graduate student working at the University of Minnesota’s Thomas E. Murphy Engine Research Laboratory takes readings off a screen. He’s tracking how heat from the engine’s exhaust can convert ammonia—a fuel commonly available on farms—to hydrogen, allowing it to burn efficiently.

The lab, which moved into its renovated space in an industrial park near the Twin Cities campus in late 2013, is becoming a go-to testing site for carmakers and the manufacturers of engines and automotive components. It recently won a three-year $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s NEXTCAR Program.

Researchers from the U are working with UPS and Workhorse, a small start-up that makes hybrid electric delivery trucks for UPS, to increase the energy efficiency of its cloud-connected delivery vehicles. “The goal is to achieve 20 percent fuel economy using computers connected through the cloud to optimize vehicle performance along a route,” says Will Northrop, director of the lab and associate professor of mechanical engineering.


Northrop believes the growing number of all-electric Teslas, Nissan Leafs, and Chevy Bolts on the road doesn’t spell the end for the internal combustion engine. “We’re moving into connected and automated vehicles,” he says. These gas-electric hybrids use real-time data to predict driving conditions and more intelligently operate the engine, transmission, and other components to improve fuel economy.

Six years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible for the U to go after some of the contracts it’s winning today. The lab, housed on the fourth floor of the Mechanical Engineering building on the Twin Cities campus, needed renovating. But the cost of bringing it up to code so it could accommodate the work they wanted to do wasn’t feasible. “We weren’t even able to burn gasoline,” Northrop says.

Charles Lo, ’70 B.S., ’72 M.S., ’93 M.B.A., believes in supporting the U in many ways. In 2013, after retiring as a director of the St. Paul-based engineering firm TSI Inc., he approached the Mechanical Engineering Department wanting to help the Thomas E. Murphy Engine Research Lab. Gifts from Lo and his wife, Maryanne, allowed for the purchase of two dynamometers. But that’s not all.

Lo also became the lab’s unpaid research associate, working with students and talking up the lab to potential donors as well as representatives from industry and other universities that may be interested in collaborating. “I didn’t want to just donate,”
he says. “I wanted to help in any way I can.”

With $5 million in state funds and money from the U’s College of Science and Engineering, they renovated and moved into 6,000 square feet of space (plus room to expand) near campus that once warehoused old lab and office furniture. But that investment didn’t cover upgrades to equipment. “Some of our equipment was from the 1930s and ’40s,” Northrop says. “It wasn’t suitable for modern research.”

So they looked for private funding. Charles Lo, ’70 B.S., ’72 M.S., ’93 M.B.A., and his wife, Maryanne, made a lead gift to purchase two dynamometers, allowing the lab to expand its ability to study alternative fuels, do drive cycle testing, and perform fundamental combustion research. A gift from Edwin Lee, ’76 B.S., paid for an emissions analyzer—“a crucial piece of equipment for our kind of work,” Northrop says. “Without those two things, we’re really not in business.”

The new space and equipment has drawn attention from industry and government. “In your grant proposals, you have to talk about your facilities,” Northrop says. “We’ve had program officers from the Department of Energy, BP, Fiat Chrysler, Bosch, the Office of Vehicle Technology, and other carmakers visit. They were impressed.”


Having a modern facility is only part of what’s drawing attention to the lab. “It’s really our brain power and what we’re doing idea-wise that sets us apart,” Northrop says.

He believes the U is at the starting line in terms of where it can go in the field of energy research and innovation, whether for transportation or other purposes. “We want to continue building our program in directions that are relevant to industry and send students out who are well-trained,” he says. “Without the lab, neither would be possible.”

Kim Kiser is editor of Legacy.

Take a video tour of the lab and learn about its partnership with UPS and Workhorse:

U of M College of Science and Engineering