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Mizzou Engineering Electric Car Club contributes to national safety effort

Shane Corl, left, and Joseph Maurer, University of Missouri mechanical engineering seniors, spent many hours last summer populating a database of hybrid car specs for first responders, funded by the National Fire Protection Association. The president and vice-president of the MU electric car club undertook the project to raise funds for the club’s electric vehicle.

Students joining the University of Missouri’s Electric Car Club as an extracurricular activity never imagined they’d play a key role in a national agency’s effort to educate emergency first responders to the intricacies of alternative fuel vehicles. But that opportunity for one of the newest clubs within Mizzou’s College of Engineering materialized when motive and means came to fruition under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“A year-and-a-half ago, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) decided to develop and deliver a training curriculum for first responders to incidents involving electric and hybrid vehicles,” said John Cannon, project manager for training development at NFPA, headquartered near Boston. “Manufacturer’s technical manuals can be 25 to 30 pages long. They generally aren’t laid out well for first responders, who need critical information in a hurry.”

First responders include fire services, emergency medical personnel, law enforcement and tow truck operators.

NFPA’s successful grant application for the project to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) provided funding, and Cannon’s team conducted market research, organized focus groups and interviewed first responder training services to determine the best format for training and quick reference guides.

Half of respondents preferred online training and resources, and the other half felt classroom courses and printed materials would serve them better. The association decided to develop both.

“There were three components to the project,” said Kevin Zumwalt, assistant director of MU Extension’s Fire and Rescue Training Institute (FRTI), who was among the first contacted about the quick response guides, a project he said has been brewing for some time. “They wanted an online database that would interface with the NFPA website, a computer-installable package that would provide access to the database on a laptop where no Internet signal exists and a print version.”

Zumwalt’s first thought was that development of a database and a corresponding app would make an excellent capstone project for MU engineering seniors. He contacted the college, but a quick turnaround deadline precluded the option.

Robert Reed, a research assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, organized a meeting to explore other options. Representatives from MU FRTI and several interested MU faculty members attended and things fell into place.

Database development for the project was subcontracted to a local Internet company owned by Leon Schumacher, professor of agricultural systems management at the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. Compiling information from various auto manufacturers to populate the database was subcontracted to the Electric Car Club. And responsibility for overall project management and the print version of the NFPA electric vehicle field guide went to Zumwalt and the MU FRTI office, with experience and capabilities in this area.

“The guide needed to be essential details without crowding it with unnecessary info,” said Cannon of his vision for the project.

Cannon contacted auto companies for their alternative fuel vehicle guidelines and provided the information to Shane Corl and Joseph Maurer, president and vice-president, respectively, of Mizzou Engineering’s Electric Car Club.

“Manufacturers are required to have emergency response guides,” said Maurer, who headed up efforts to acquire illustrations and images for the project. “Some of them had everything and more. Some were not so great.”

“One of the biggest things Kevin [Zumwalt] stressed to us about the project was consistency,” said Corl, who was the driving force behind the written content. “I read all of the guides, and they were very different. Even the terminology was different. We had to contact some of the manufacturers to get more information.”

In a standard car, batteries are in the same place, but as the pair pointed out, all of that is out the window with electric and hybrid cars. “Nothing is recognizable. Your first thought is, ‘How can it hurt me?’ You don’t know anything,” Maurer said.

“Besides the year, make and model, we needed to come up with categories for potential scenarios, things like immobilization, extraction and fires. That way, responders could pick one and be directed to a procedure,” Corl said.

To determine categories, the pair said they asked themselves the questions they thought first responders at the scene of an incident might have: How do we know if the car is running? Can I cut into this car to extract someone? How will I know what’s safe?

“We had to show how to disconnect the car,” Corl said. “Not all manufacturers put high voltage lines in the same place, and battery packs are located in different places. It was really interesting to see where they were located. Most are in the back or underneath the car.”

Corl said it was hard to estimate how much time was spent on the project since it involved “a lot of whenever there was time to work on it.” Between the text and graphics required for each vehicle, there were 40 different fields that had to needed to be filled for the 35 to 40 vehicles the team profiled.

“Without their help, we couldn’t have completed the project,” Zumwalt said. “I was very impressed with Shane. He did what any manager would want from someone who worked for them. He was so organized.”

The printed guide is assembled in a three-ring binder, both so that it will open and lie flat as responders look at it, and so that updates with new models easily can be added.

The materials are intended to go hand-in-hand with “train the trainer” programs that have already been initiated. By the end of the year, training will have been completed in eight states.

“I have a great sense of pride in showing that the club is capable of taking on a project like this and that we were able to make such a contribution,” Maurer said.

“My interest in the project was driven by my desire to be where new things are. I always want to be a part of that and make my mark on the world,” Corl said. “Just like with this project, you really have to put your mind to work.”

“People are very anxious to see this,” Cannon said. “It will be an invaluable resource.”

Halfway through the three-year funding for the project, Cannon said NFPA is already looking at ways to make the service sustainable and has looked at various ways to generate revenues.

“A couple of auto manufacturers are interested in contracting us to write their emergency response guides,” Cannon said. “They’ve said, ‘You know what first responders need and you know the way it needs to be written.’ The profits will go back into training.”

Several foreign countries are apparently interested in licensing the materials. “Our success far outpaced NFPA expectations,” he said.

Mizzou Electric Car Club

MU Engineering’s Electric Car Club bleeped into existence in the 2010 spring semester at about the same time that a 1997 Ford Explorer was donated to the college to convert to an electric vehicle.

“Procedures developed in this initial project will be further developed when the team builds an electric vehicle Formula One car,” said team sponsor Marty Walker, engineering’s director of administrative services.

Maurer and Corl said students who join the team all have different strengths and tasks distributed by expertise, and interest and the entire group — mostly electrical and mechanical engineering students  — works together to accomplish different things.

“It allows people to do what they like,” Corl said.

The group initially disassembled the Explorer, realizing there were many hurdles involved in the conversion, and has begun to work through them.

“Power brakes depend on a gas engine for vacuum,” said Walker, giving an example of a challenge the club faced.

The biggest hurdle became fundraising to purchase the necessary parts. As a new club without a performance reputation, Corl said it was difficult to persuade companies to discount or donate parts, standard procedure for many of the college’s competition teams.

Funding from the university, a gift from a private company and the income from the NFPA project gave the team the capital to move forward.

The team purchased a motor and controller and got a really good deal on batteries from a Missouri battery company, Dow Kokam, where Corl did a summer internship.

“Building the battery pack will be a senior capstone project for senior mechanical engineering students Corl and Maurer.

Though expensive, the team is using lithium-ion batteries, as fewer cells are required. When completed, the battery pack will have 768 cells, be about one-half inch thick and have the surface area of a standard office desktop.

The pair said there is still a lot of work to do, but they think they can complete it by the end of the semester.

The Electric Car Club also spends time educating the public on alternative fuels and green energy.

“We do field trips to schools and other places. Quite a few people stop and talk to us,” Maurer said. “It seems like everyone is focused on the environment, and electric cars have zero emissions.”

“The people at Dow Kokam want us to bring it by when we’re finished,” Corl said. “They want to see how we put it all together.”

Reprinted with permission from SAE’s Momentum, the Magazine for Student Members of SAE International.



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