'The Windsor Way' — U of W professor's engine research draws global attention, funding

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Windsor Star/Dave Waddell




Engineering professor Ming Zheng’s passion is as explosive as the ‘little bombs’ he sets off in the combustion chambers at the University of Windsor’s Centre for Automotive Research and Education.

Zheng isn’t alone in his excitement over his clean combustible engine research.

His work in a former elementary school housing his multimillion-dollar lab behind the engineering faculty has attracted worldwide interest, and funding, from the auto industry.

“We have different areas of expertise — one centring on control of clean combustion,” Zheng said.

“How we run our research platforms, half the labs in the world are copying our way. It’s called the Windsor Way.”

By experimenting with air-fuel mixtures and better ignition from a three-pole spark plug he’s created, Zheng has seen five-per-cent improvements in fuel mileage and up to 70-per-cent reduction in emission gases in testing.

Zheng’s research has resulted in him being jetted around the world to visit automakers in North America, Europe, Korea, Japan and China.

Ford Motor Company is among the automakers supporting Zheng’s current work.

“The vast majority of vehicles built in the next five years will have (internal combustion engines),” Ford executive vice-president Joseph Hinrichs said at the Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association’s conference held in Windsor in June.

“That business is going to be substantial for some time,” he said.

“Fuel mileage and emission reductions matter. Investing in new technology is significant and investment in reducing emissions is important.”

For all the focus on the electrification of the auto industry, internal combustion engines are what will help pay the bills for another 25 years, said Michael Robinet, automotive director with global information provider IHS Markit.

“There’s no doubt OEM’s (original equipment manufacturers) are looking for an edge,” Robinet said of Zheng’s work.

“If there’s some way they can even get an extra half mile per gallon and better emissions, that’s critical going forward.”

Zheng has seen just how important the industry views his work by the investment they’re making in it.

“It costs millions of dollars to do this testing and the university hasn’t had to pay anything,” said Zheng, who also holds a Canadian research chair in clean combustible energy.

“We’ve been fortunate to get millions of dollars from the industry.”

Zheng feels his work will be particularly important to trucking firms, who are expected to continue to use traditional fuels into the foreseeable future.

“To get the same distance out of an electrically-powered truck that you can get from one with a tank of fuel, even if you used Tesla’s Panasonic battery, you’d need a battery that’s 15,000 to 20,000 tons,” Zheng said.

As he strolls through his lab, Zheng rattles off the price tags in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for each piece of equipment. It’s all tied together with bales of wiring attached to computers.

“Our work is very precise,” said Zheng, who is also researching turbo-charged engines.

“We can control and improve the burning of fuel. We’re among the frontrunners in that in the world.”

The challenge for Zheng is multi-faceted.

He’s looking to improve mileage while trying to reduce emissions at a time when fuels are also evolving. It’s no longer just gasoline and diesel but also biofuels made from a multitude of sources.

In addition, he has to create cost-effective technology that automakers can actually implement.

“We’re making big progress on air quality (from internal combustible engines),” Zheng said. “We’ve reduced hydrocarbons and soot by 95 per cent in the last 20 to 30 years.”

Zheng feels a key component in taking the next step to reduce greenhouse gases is the three-pole spark plug he’s testing.

One experimental plug is capable of generating 15 joules of energy, five per pole, compared to the less-than-one joule generated by single-pole plugs.

“Cars don’t need 15 joules, only the military would want that capability,” Zheng said. “But having more joules and more consistent sparks for ignition allows for cleaner, more complete burns. It would be a major breakthrough for the industry.”

Zheng said his research also goes against the grain of where the auto industry has generally concentrated in the past.

“Many researchers think the hardware can’t be touched,” Zheng said. “That’s industry stuff. It’s too expensive changing hardware, so they think it’s a solid wall that can’t be broken.

“You can’t think that way. You can ask the industry to change.”

Zheng hopes to take a major step forward in his work with a full, four-cylinder engine test in cooperation with an original equipment manufacturer in the near future.

“It could be three to six months or three years,” Zheng said of how close he is to seeing the spark plug become commercially viable. “We’re making progress every month.

“What we need is more consistency in the ceramics (shell) of the plug. Japan is doing the best work in ceramics, so I’m going to have to go back there to talk with them again.”