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The Future of Green Technology

by | Sep 9, 2014

In 1968, when Ted Dillard was eleven, his father brought home an electric car from his job at Massachusetts Electric.

“It’s up to your generation,’” he told Dillard.“‘This technology’s been around. The problem is the batteries, and it’s up to your generation to solve that problem.’”

Today Dillard is the founder and president of Boston’s chapter of the Electric Auto Association, and he is now looking to his children’s generation, specifically those in college, to solve the problem of building a better battery, and with it, an alternative energy automobile that is both reliant and pragmatic.

“M.I.T. is where the batteries come from,” Dillard says, 6117054486_ddecdab822_z“And it continues to move forward in terms of the technology.”

M.I.T. is not the only American university involved with alternative energy initiatives, just as the conversation is not limited to only improvement in batteries, but expands to include options such as electric, hydrogen, and hybrid vehicles.

Across the country, schools are advocating for charging station infrastructure, and designing and producing alternative energy racing technology. They are reaching out to the best young minds, inviting them to help create the new wave of green car energy, with the rise of gas prices and the decline of the environment’s resilience.

Illah Nourbakhsh, a mechanical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, advocates for college level research and public discourse, with the goal to bring green technology to the forefront of the community.

“Universities play a fairly large role, in the sense that they can  make high risk bets,” he says. “They’re the one place where you can  get some  funding, try something crazy that may have a low chance of  success –  but if it succeeds it’ll be a really great thing.”

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Nourbakhsh adds that, most importantly, they serve as an incubator  for information about new technologies. “People can use  universities as  a sounding board to think about the future and plan for the future,” he says.

Schools manage the challenges surrounding green technology and innovation in different ways.

At Virginia Tech, around 30 to 40 students from mechanical engineering, business, communications, and other disciplines are involved with a program called the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team. Last year it finished its third of a three-year competition called EcoCar2, sponsored by General Motors and The Department of Energy. The team competed against 14 other universities, with the goal of converting a Chevy Malibu into a hybrid vehicle to lower its environmental impact.

Eli White, the Team Leader, and then a second year graduate student, says that one of the team’s main goals, in addition to advancing the technology, is to raise public awareness of alternative energy options.

7452554014_2068e951b2_zThrough the business and communications departments, team members have visited public elementary, middle, and high schools, where they inform younger students about the benefits of hybrid cars and emerging technology in electric vehicles. The team has also spoken with local congressmen about legislation to fund alternative energy, and opened discussion with their sponsors, like Schneider Electric, about installing more charging stations.

EcoCar2 is just one of many alternative energy race teams across the country. The Solar Challenge, for instance, focuses entirely on solar power for its 1,200 – 1,800 mile North America road race. Last year 24 universities signed up for the race.

“At a university level I know a lot of different vehicle projects,” White says, referring not only to solar power, but to electric motorcycles and Formula as well. He adds that, for many car companies, seeking out those innovators is key. “I know that a big push for them right now is getting engineers out of school that know about hybrids,” he says. “They can then go straight to work and produce the next generation of hybrid.”

That knowledge of hybrids extends beyond the production line to the repair shop. John Cosmini, an instructor at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston, emphasizes the importance of hybrid and alternative energy knowledge from the perspective of the mechanic, and passes the information onto his students.

“These techs are going to be the way of the future,” he says. “If you stick your head in the sand the world is going to pass you by, and to be a technician now you can’t let it pass you by.”

Through battery development and conversation that includes both engineers and non-engineers, many universities have been active in the push for alternative energy automobiles. But there can be disconnect between the programs in places on campuses and their implementation beyond the classroom.

9137461174_b6efb1d233_z“I think universities are a great place to pilot technologies and  programs,” says Bronwyn Cooke, the Sustainability Planner for the university full city of Cambridge, Mass. “It’s relatively easy for them to pilot, because they are one institution. They have one decision making  process.”

“But,” she adds, “it gets a little difficult to translate those into a  community where there are a lot of different people and a lot of different goals, and a lot of different ideas as to what should happen.”

Ted Dillard agrees that the line between the college research lab and the world beyond is not always straight, and that students can be distracted or lured off course by potential profit of the technology, and lose focus on the good it might do. It is something he attributes to a common mentality of student developers, who are used to selling designs for profit.

“It’s not necessarily developing a product,” he says, “It’s about cashing in on investment… Unfortunately, I see this coming out of schools.”

Still, Dillard believes that college students are at the forefront of developing alternative energy cars. He adds that the financial and social support colleges receive from automotive and electrical companies, municipalities, and their own administrations, have been integral to the whole alternative energy movement so far, and will continue to be in the future.

“I feel very strongly about the wisdom of being able to step back and see where you are in time, and where you are in history,” he says, referring to the green energy push in the automotive industry. “You’re right at the edge, especially the schools… and if you’ve gotten into it thinking you’re just plugging away at the status quo then you’re missing the point. You’re missing everything.”

Image top right by Fortum Sverige via Creative Commons

Image center left by Jaggery via Creative Commons

Image center right by Cal State LA EcoCAR2 via Creative Commons.

Image bottom left by Oregon Department of Transportation via Creative Commons. 

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