As General Motors struggles through plans to emerge from bankruptcy as a stronger, leaner automaker, a local engineer has been chosen to work on a project pegged to lead the company into a more electrifying future.
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs engineering professor Gregory Plett said Thursday he is joining a team of academicians and automotive engineers working to advance battery technology for electric vehicles that GM plans to produce.
The goal of the $5 million, five-year project is to develop lithium-ion battery cells that will last the lifetime of the electric vehicle, Plett said.
UCCS will receive $750,000 of the grant, enabling Plett and two graduate students to research ways to improve control mechanisms in the wafer-thin, rectangular battery cells to track energy consumption and extend longevity.
Four faculty members from the University of Michigan, along with about 20 affiliated students and a similar number of GM engineers, will also work on the project, called the GM/University of Michigan Advanced Battery Coalition for Drivetrains.
"The technology is a leapfrog ahead of what Toyota and other manufacturers are currently offering - it's a gutsy move GM is making," Plett said.
Unlike the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, which have both gasoline- and electric-powered motors connected to the transmission, the next generation of electric technology links an electric motor to the transmission but uses a gasoline engine to power the batteries - similar to a generator.
"It's a different architecture that will mean drivers will only have to fill the gas tank once or twice a year," Plett said.
Plett, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University, had an inside connection to the project: He had been a consultant for a company that is supplying battery packs for GM's first plug-in hybrid electric car, the Chevy Volt, which is scheduled to go into mass production late next year.
The company, Compact Power Inc., or CPI, had been headquartered in Colorado Springs until 2005, when it relocated to Detroit.
"His track record of work with CPI ... made him a good choice for us, and we aim to build on this, and the team's work, to advance electrification technologies rapidly. We want to see battery models scale seamlessly from materials to vehicles - and his expertise helps us do that," said Bob Kruse, executive director of hybrids, electric vehicles and batteries at GM.
Plett said he was sitting in his office in the engineering building at UCCS last September when, out of the blue, he got a call from the University of Michigan to see if he would consider being involved.
Plett said he was thrilled because he has a passion for such technology and wrote his doctoral dissertation on the very topic of control systems, such as those used in the automotive industry.
"Electric vehicles not only reduce the impact of transportation on the environment and our dependence on foreign oil, but they're also really fun," he said, flashing a smile. "A well-designed electric vehicle is more responsive, accelerates quickly, is quiet and much more agile - just a real pleasure to drive."
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