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Students Convert Pick-Up Truck to Run on Batteries

Profile of Excellence in Action:
Kent State University Assistant Professor Don Coates (pictured, left) and his students researched the use of rechargeable batteries for powering a vehicle, and have a system ready to hit the road.

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Students Convert Pick-Up Truck to Run on Batteries

Posted Jan. 31, 2011
Kent State University Assistant Professor Don Coates and his students are researching the use of rechargeable batteries for powering a vehicle. But their research is far from theoretical. The class has installed a battery-powered system in a used Ford Ranger truck, and they are getting ready to take it on the road.

profiles Electric Car inside
The batteries needed to power an electric vehicle
The idea for the project began in the spring of 2008 when students in Coates' class on electric power conducted a study of electric vehicles. After studying the concept, they decided on purchasing a kit from a company that does electric car conversions. Work on the vehicle began in the summer of 2009.

Coates, who started at Kent State's College of Technology in 2004, has decades of experience in the major appliance industry, working for companies such as Hoover, Frigidaire and Whirlpool. "I wanted to establish some activity in the area of alternative energy, because then you have a basis to go after grant money for other projects," Coates says. "This work represents a basis for education and future research."

The student team installed deep cycle gel batteries, similar to those used in golf carts, in the bed of the truck. "These batteries are relatively affordable, costing about $2,400," Coates says. "Over time, we could look at alternative batteries."

The electric truck is no slouch when it comes to performance. The vehicle can travel up to 100 miles on one charge and can achieve a speed of 70 miles per hour. "It has serious acceleration as well," Coates adds.

Converting a truck into an electric vehicle is a huge undertaking. It's a big project, Coates says. "Some said too big."

Graduate student Jain Jacob assisted with calculating horsepower, range, torque and acceleration. Students from Coates' Energy/Power class and senior project class worked on the project.

No university funds were used for the endeavor; the project was completely funded through donations and some earned revenue. "We received donations from Classic Motors of Streetsboro, Harris Battery, the TRIZ Conference, A.R.E. Manufacturing and American Electric Power, as well as faculty and students," Coates says. "The companies we contacted were very eager to help."

The retrofitted Ford Ranger was completed late last year, at a cost of less than $15,000. Coates and a few of the more than 30 students that worked on the project gathered on a snowy day in late December to take some photos and to test-drive the vehicle in an area parking lot.

"The launch went very well," Coates reports.

Once the truck is certified by Kent State's Campus Environment and Operations office as an official university vehicle, the testing phase of the project will begin. Faculty members and students will measure performance data and begin developing reports, articles and future projects.

"We're also going to study the feasibility of adding solar cells and wind turbines to the truck," Coates explains. "We may look at adding a small generator as well for occasional trips of more than 100 miles."

The Chevy Volt, a hybrid electric vehicle, was recently named "Car of the Year" at the 2011 North American Car show in Detroit. With cars such as the Volt and the all-electric Nissan Leaf making headlines, Coates feels the timing for completion of their project is serendipitous. "I believe electric vehicles will eventually become pervasive in our society," Coates says. "These new technologies could have a significant impact on our economy."

Coates adds that there could be many advantages to converting to electric vehicles. "The need for maintenance in many areas will be greatly reduced," Coates explains. "It could really change the paradigm for automobile longevity and be the beginning of a new era in personal transportation."

Coates, who also teaches classes on inventive problem solving and the management of technology innovation, recently helped establish a technology minor in innovation at Kent State, with the cooperation of Assistant Professor Darwin Boyd from the College of Technology and Pamela Grimm and Julie Messing of the College of Business Administration.

A native of Long Island, N.Y., Coates says Ohio is still one of the biggest suppliers of parts for the auto industry, and he is passionate about reclaiming the state's manufacturing heritage. "I want our students to have the tools necessary to be innovative and energy efficient," Coates concludes. "We have to be ready to educate our students in this technology. Technological innovation is what will bring jobs back to Northeast Ohio."

By Bob Burford