Government funding for fluid power advancements

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The Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power is among the top academic research and government advocacy leaders for fluid power in the United States, and its mission is to change the way fluid power is researched, applied, and taught. According to a recent presentation by CCEFP Director Kim Stelson, its vision is to ensure fluid power is the technology of choice for power generation, transmission, storage and motion control—by improving existing applications, creating new markets, partnering with industry and educating the next generation of technology leaders for fluid power. See “Upbeat future for fluid-power research” for more details.

Research is critical for advancing fluid power technology, said Stelson, and the CCEFP is attracting substantial dollars in support. The Center’s government funded research directions are divided into three areas: off-highway vehicles, led by Zongxuan Sun at the Univ. of Minnesota; human scale systems, led by Eric Barth at Vanderbilt; and fluid power manufacturing, led by Tequila Harris at Georgia Tech.

“The greatest success we’ve had so far is in creating a fluid power commercial off-road vehicle research program,” said Stelson. The federal budget for fiscal year 2017 established a $5 million program for R&D to improve energy efficiency of fluid power systems for commercial off-road vehicles. And the tentative 2018 budget has the House Committee on Appropriations recommending $10 million for energy efficiency improvements for commercial off-road vehicles, with the Senate committee recommending $5 million at this point. “We’re going to ask Congress to ensure that a minimum of $8.5 million is targeted for university led research projects, in collaboration with industry,” he said.

With the initial $5 million funding, the Dept. of Energy requested proposals last October. Notification of winning selections is slated for March and final contracts completed in May. Stelson thinks somewhere between 20 and 25 concept papers were submitted. A few examples of proposed relevant and important research areas include: energy efficient hybrid architecture for wheel loaders; high-efficiency variable linkage drive motors for skid steer loaders; connected construction vehicles for energy saving and productivity improvements; free piston engine pumps for construction machines; flywheel and accumulator hybrids for construction vehicles; integrated variable-speed electromechanical pumps; tribology and hard coatings for pumps and motors; and energy improvement through enhanced filtration.

“We think that there’s probably going to be something in the neighborhood of about 10 or 12 of these proposals coming in for the final selection of two to three projects for funding. Two to three projects for funding doesn’t sound like very much, but this is just the beginning. Next year, we’re anticipating a doubling of the funding, so something like four to six would be coming in in the second year. It starts to accumulate until it reaches steady state, with $10 million of funding every year.” That would result in a sizeable number of faculty and students being involved in a wide range of research projects over the long term.

The second area of focus in on human scale systems, primarily involving “wearable” robotics. This is a hot area, and it’s being basically championed by the Wearable Robotics Association, the group that hosts the annual WeaRAcon event, explained Stelson.

These wearable robotics would provide performance enhancements, such as an exoskeleton to restore function for the injured, or to provide therapy, he said. “People are anticipating a very wide application of wearable robotics. It’s not a big industry now, but I think it will be in the future. One of the things you realize when you start to look at the numbers is that if you have to carry your power along with you, you can’t do this with high performance and electrics. You need hydraulics and pneumatics, because of its high power density, to get good performance in these kinds of applications. This is an ideal future direction for us to look at.”

The WeaRA network includes CCEFP researchers, but also researchers from other organizations that encouraged a letter writing campaign to influence a program from the National Science Foundation called Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation, or EFRI.

Due to the efforts, NSF announced it will fund a program involving research into continuum, compliant, and configurable soft robots, exactly the sort of wearable robotics CCEFP has been advocating. Its researchers are actively pursuing these grants and expect six to seven, four-year awards. Anticipated funding for soft robotics will total about $13 million. Read more at “Hard cash for soft robotics.” “This is coming online, because fluid power is a fundamental enabling technology for this area,” noted Stelson.

There is also substantial interest in research involving fluid power and manufacturing. We’ll delve into this area in an upcoming blog.

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