At ICE laboratory, diversity fuels the fire within

Come together: Stony Brook University Assistant Professors of Mechanical Engineering Benjamin Lawler (left) and Sotirios Mamalis lead a diverse team of researchers looking to improve internal-combustion technology.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Diversity is behind the wheel at Stony Brook University, where an unexpected team of mechanical engineers is fueling a new future for an old technology.

Electric vehicles are an enormous part of an energy-efficient future – and they’re increasingly prevalent in the present, with hybrids quickly filling our HOV lanes. But that doesn’t mean internal combustion engines are dead.

Instead, the drive for energy efficiency has researchers like SBU Department of Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professors Benjamin Lawler and Sotirios Mamalis rethinking longstanding ICE principles, with an eye on newer, better internal-combustion tech.

And just as the highways and byways are becoming more diverse, the team of student researchers working with the professors represents a breadth of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds – far from the male-dominated gearheads and grease monkeys of yesterday’s motor shop.

The come-together mantra starts at the top. Lawler, a self-described “experimentalist” given to computer simulations and modeling, found the right partner in Mamalis, a member of the international Society of Automotive Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and more of a hands-on type.

The professors’ individual skills broaden each other’s range – “We each have complementary skill sets working toward that same goal,” Lawler said – and the dichotomy sets the tone for their laboratory, tucked inside SBUs Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center.

Mozghan Boldaji: The new face of internal combustion.

A globally diverse team of PhD candidates has hit the gas under the professors’ joint tutelage, which is “fun and exciting to me,” Lawler noted.

“I’m from a town with very little diversity, but now I get to work with these students with different backgrounds and different life experiences,” the professor added. “And yet we all wound up here, working together to better understand the processes going on inside an internal-combustion engine.”

Among the standouts is research assistant Mozhgan Rahimi Boldaji, an Iranian graduate student scheduled to finish her PhD in mechanical engineering this spring. A burgeoning expert in computational fluid dynamics simulations, Boldaji is currently researching an advanced combustion model – created in Lawler’s lab – promising lower emissions and new ICE efficiencies.

Laboratory demonstrations have proved promising, and as the professor seeks funding for actual vehicle demonstrations, he credits Boldaji’s efforts as “incredibly helpful.”

“When I first got to Stony Brook, we had to build the actual lab, and we didn’t have experimental capabilities right away,” Lawler said. “But we could get started right away on modeling and simulations, and Mozghan was able to do some of the initial computational fluid dynamics studies, which led to other breakthroughs.”

Also successful has been Spring 2019 mechanical engineering PhD candidate Deivanaygam Hariharan, an Indian import working on advanced combustion modes based on a 2018 patent earned by Lawler and Mamalis.

Currently, the most advanced combustion modes require two different fuels to achieve lower emissions and better control. Lawler and Mamalis have created a “single-parent fuel” that catalyzes from one state to another, maximizing efficiency without the need for two fuels – more so, thanks to Hariharan’s formulation and evaluation experiments.

Brian Gainey: Island-hopping engineer.

“Deiva’s actually conducting a lot of the pioneering experiments for that combustion mode, which really nobody else has studied,” Lawler noted.

Also breaking new ground is Chinese emigrant Yingcong Zhou, a PhD candidate who’s been working on primary modeling and simulation for what Lawler described as a “completely novel engine architecture.”

Absent certain traditional components (a crank shaft, for instance) and generating electricity directly from combustion (as opposed to pairing the engine with a generator), the novel tech could be used as a “range extender” for electric vehicles – and could even be used to store backup juice for electric-vehicle batteries, according to the professor.

“Yingcong has a computer model that can simulate a wide variety of different architectures, operating conditions, fuels, etc., so he can compare the efficiency and the benefits and the drawbacks of each,” Lawler said. “Right now, we’re trying to maximize efficiency and learn which operational ranges are most efficient.

“There’s nothing like it, in production vehicles or anywhere else.”

Experiment-and-advance also describes the work of mechanical engineering PhD candidate Brian Gainey of Staten Island, who’s picked up where Mozhgan’s computer simulations left off – testing her findings with the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s single-cylinder, fully instrumented research engines.

So far, his efforts have proven that advanced combustion models can deliver low emissions and high efficiency in certain practical applications – but if Lawler and Mamalis are to deliver on their promise of highly efficient ICE technologies to support the electric-vehicle market, the motors will need to work in all applications.

Which means Gainey and the rest of the diverse PhD candidates have work to do before this stage of their education wraps up next month.

“Transportation companies are incredibly risk-adverse, so it takes a lot of time for new technologies to be implemented,” Lawler noted. “So, the work of these students is incredibly important.

“We have the patents, but they are the ones who do the initial evaluations of these concepts,” the professor added. “It’s their work that provides the details and leads to the first published papers.”