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One year after Volkswagen scandal WVU researchers look to the future of emissions technology

CAFEE photo

 CAFEE researchers

On most days, the air seems to vibrate at a higher frequency at West Virginia University's Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions. This week is particularly busy. One year after the biggest scandal in automotive history, industry stakeholders are gathering in Morgantown to discuss the future of emissions technology.

WVU CAFEE’s inaugural Real-World Emissions Technology Summit will gather industry, academic and regulatory leaders in Morgantown to engage in discussion about the future of emissions technologies.

The summit begins on September 28 with an evening reception hosted by President Gordon Gee at the Vehicle and Engine Testing Laboratory, CAFEE’s new off-campus facility. The event will continue on September 29 at the Waterfront Place Hotel with a full day of speakers and panels. The following speakers will participate.

  • President Gordon Gee
  • Glen H. Diner Dean of the Statler College of Engineering Gene Cilento
  • Dan Carder, director, CAFEE
  • Margo Oge, distinguished fellow, ClimateWorks, and former director of the Office of Transportation Air Quality at the U.S. EPA
  • Leo Breton, U.S. Department of Energy and Energy Innovations
  • Henry Hogo, assistant deputy executive officer in the science and technology advancement office at South Coast Air Quality Management District
  • Stacey Benards, vice president of global government relations for Honeywell
  • Tim French, Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association

In addition to the featured speakers, panelists will discuss CAFEE’s research focus areas, industry drivers and their related research and development, engines and emissions research from a government perspective, and regulatory pathways.

What a difference a year makes
On the afternoon of September 18, 2015, then-Ph.D. student Marc Besch – who is now a research associate at CAFEE – was tucked away behind a computer solely focused on completing his dissertation.

Arvind Thiruvengadam, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Greg Thompson, associate professor of mechanical engineering, were working in their offices and preparing for classes.

Dan Carder was in the lab when he noticed the incessant ringing of his phone – more so than usual – from phone numbers he didn’t recognize.

He decided to answer one of the calls, a reporter from New York, and since then his phone hasn’t stopped ringing.

That day news broke that Volkswagen had admitted to using a “defeat device” in its diesel passenger cars. Investigations by the California Air Resources Board and U.S. EPA’s had revealed that the automaker changed code in the car’s central computer in order to cheat on emissions tests.

WVU’s role in the announcement also became part of the news story. In 2014, the International Council on Clean Transportation had contracted CAFEE to conduct a study that tested emissions levels from diesel vehicles on the road. WVU’s researchers found that two of the three vehicles they tested – both Volkswagens – were emitting five to 35 times the oxides of nitrogen permitted by regulators.

“We have been doing fuels and emissions work for decades,” said Carder. “So, to suddenly be approached by every news outlet out there was strange for us. Normally, only the engineers that work in our field are interested in the studies that we do.”

Calls came in from every major media outlet from countries around the world as curiosity about CAFEE’s small study piqued the interest of the global audience.

Eventually, the work of the center and the research team was recognized by Automotive News, Motor Trend, Roadshow by CNET and Time magazine.

Carder says the recognition that WVU and CAFEE gained will eventually lead to more interest from students from around the world in addition to growth of CAFEE’s research and services.

The more things change the more they stay the same
Despite the accolades, CAFEE’s engineers and technicians have continued at a feverish pace. The daily grind of getting proposals out the door is still the priority as they work to secure sponsorships, grants and research funding to sustain the work of the center.

This past summer, a U.S. court approved an agreement between Volkswagen and federal and state governments in which the automaker would fix or buy back vehicles, compensate car owners and pay for environmental cleanup and research into emissions technologies.

There is no word yet on whether WVU will receive a portion of the settlement.

CAFEE’s researchers also have also lived this history before. In the late 1990s, CAFEE played a significant role in a similar settlement between CARB, U.S. EPA and six heavy-duty diesel engine manufacturers, providing research and assessment of compliance following the settlement.

That work resulted in the development of in-use emissions standards for heavy-duty engines and the subsequent commercial development of portable emissions measurement systems, known as PEMS, which decades later CAFEE researchers used to test Volkswagen vehicles.

“CAFEE has the capabilities to road-test vehicles and vehicle technology,” said Carder. “We are unique because we can test in the laboratory and in the field.”

Looking to the future
A year on from the scandal that shook the global automotive industry, there are still many questions that haven’t been answered, but CAFEE is focused on the road ahead.

With increasingly stringent rules for both gasoline and diesel vehicles in the passenger-car and heavy-duty engine markets, manufacturers will have to innovate. That’s where CAFEE comes in.

“In our 25 years of experience, we have seen that situations like this tend to spur rapid acceleration in technology advancement,” said Carder. “Bringing new technology to the market is a complex task, and CAFEE has a long history with making sure new technology is robust enough to work in real-world situations.”

Carder and the team at CAFEE are adding to their capabilities, bringing two new laboratory facilities on line in the next few months.

The Vehicle and Engine Testing Laboratory will feature a light-duty chassis dynamometer, a heavy-duty chassis dynamometer, an ATV/motorcycle dynamometer and engine test cells.

The Advanced Combustion Laboratory will centralize CAFEE’s existing fundamental engine and combustion research capabilities, which include single cylinder research engines and a constant volume combustion chamber. The laboratory will also house a new optical engine based on a production medium-duty compression-ignition engine. The new engine provides optical access through a Bowditch piston and side windows. This configuration provides multiple locations to capture images of the combustion process.

Additionally, they are looking at what the future will hold for emissions technology, the research behind it and the testing necessary to ensure that it is successful.

Gathering industry, academic and regulatory leaders together for the summit is a first step setting the course for that future.

“Everyone in the chain – regulators, engine manufacturers, vehicle manufacturers, suppliers – are tasked with making their products more efficient and more cost effective,” said Carder. “That puts a lot of pressure on their research, development and engineering teams to continue to innovate.”

Find more details about CAFEE and the Real-World Emissions Technology Summit.



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