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IU Northwest chemistry professor participates in DOE-funded consortium for electric-vehicle training and education

Grant for $6 million will fund development of curricula for next generation of auto technicians and researchers

Hybrid vehicles are hot right now, but one nagging concern for some consumers is the question of who will repair these high-tech automobiles if and when they break down. The technical wizardry to repair a “green” generation of cars and trucks that run on hybrid batteries or fuel cells will be a precious commodity in the automotive industry.

An Indiana University Northwest chemistry professor is one of a group of state educators who will utilize federal stimulus dollars from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to develop the curricula that will teach automotive technicians those skills. Just as importantly, the Indiana Advanced Electric Vehicle Training and Education Consortium (IAEVTEC) will help to develop teaching protocols for the next generation of electrochemical engineers and researchers, so that Indiana can reassert itself as the undisputed world leader in battery technology and production.

“The first batteries, the lead acid batteries, were built in the state of Indiana,” said IU Northwest Professor of Chemistry Kizhanipuram Vinodgopal, Ph.D., a La Porte resident who is one member of the IAEVTEC consortium. “At one point, we were probably producing 100,000 batteries per day at the AC Delco and Delphi plants (in Indiana). That lead has not in any way changed, at least not in the United States, although most of the new battery developments have occurred in Japan and Europe.”

With $6.1 million in stimulus money from DOE, IAEVTEC aims to help Indiana reclaim that technological edge by developing curricula that will boost the state’s research-and-development capability with regard to next-generation battery technology and fuel cells. Purdue University is the project leader. Other participating institutions include Purdue Calumet, the University of Notre Dame, IU Northwest, IUPUI’s Richard G. Lugar Center for Renewable Energy, and Ivy Tech Community College.

“It’s a consortium that is designed to develop the workforce needed to keep Indiana’s lead in battery technology, to the point where we have the necessary workforce to keep your electric car or plug-in hybrid car running,” Vinodgopal explained. “If your car breaks down and you need a mechanic, the mechanic needs to be able to figure out the problems with this new vehicle. So that’s where the focus is going to be.

“What IU Northwest and Purdue Calumet brought to the table was excellence in electrochemistry,” he added. “What we will do is develop instructional modules in electrochemistry, which is essentially the basis of all batteries and fuel cells. We’ll develop these electrochemistry modules that can be used at every level, from high school up to and including the four-year undergraduate courses, and the two-year programs like those at Ivy Tech.”

President Barack Obama announced the IAEVTEC funding, which was part of a nearly $450 million DOE investment in battery and electric-drive projects in Indiana, at a recent appearance in the Hoosier State. The president emphasized the need to establish American self-sufficiency not only in terms of energy, but also in the technology and intellectual resources that make new discoveries possible.

Vinodgopal said the growing emphasis on electric vehicles and fuel-cell technology makes the field of electrochemistry a promising one for students.

“I tell all my students, when I teach analytical chemistry, that electrochemistry is the future,” he said. “That’s where the new jobs are going to be. In the United States, the area of electrochemistry has sort of been neglected. Most of the new technology that has been created has been in Korea and Japan.

“Now, over the past five years or so, that has begun to change,” Vinodgopal added. “There is a lot more emphasis within academic institutions for electrochemistry research and electrochemistry in the chemistry curriculum. Hopefully, this grant will provide a major stimulus in that direction.”

One goal for the auto industry, he explained, is the creation of more powerful batteries than what are available in today’s hybrids. More power can mean a longer-lasting battery, which would positively impact both the cost and performance of hybrid or electric vehicles.

“The big thing in terms of automobiles is what would be called plug-in hybrids,” Vinodgopal said. “That’s what GM has based a lot of its future on, in terms of the Volt. For example, the Toyota Prius, which is a hybrid, uses nickel-cadmium batteries. They don’t have the power density you would like; that is, how much energy you can get per gram. So the objective is to switch to lithium ion batteries, which is what you use in your cell phones, laptops, etc.”

Fuel cells, meanwhile, differ from batteries in that the fuel is placed directly into an electrochemical cell that oxidizes the material to produce the energy that powers the drive train. IAEVTEC aims to develop curricula that will allow auto technicians to learn this emerging technology, Vinodgopal said.

Another significant aim of the DOE’s total $2.4 billion investment in this type of research, he added, is the electrification of heavy trucks that now contribute substantially to fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Vinodgopal expressed excitement about being a member of IAEVTEC and working to restore international leadership status to one of Indiana’s longstanding industries. The presence of faculty from IU Northwest and Purdue Calumet in the consortium, he said, demonstrates that Northwest Indiana’s regional campuses can and do make important contributions to critical research on issues of national and global importance.

“This is a major industrial-academic effort to create the workforce that is needed for this new technology,” he said. “It’s pretty much certain that, within the next 10 to 20 years, you’re going to see a significant electrification of cars, both in the drive train and in terms of fuel sources. So the preparation that is necessary for that will be very important.”



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Christopher Sheid

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Photo by Christopher Sheid/IU Northwest Office of Marketing and Communications
IU Northwest Professor of Chemistry Kizhamipuram Vinodgopal works on an experiment in his Marram Hall laboratory.
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