Monroe manufacturer partners with UW-Madison on electric truck

Jan. 11, 2011

by Sandra Knisely

Monroe, Wis., is a small city with a big reputation for its cheese. Now, a partnership between manufacturer Orchid Monroe and University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers may expand the city's expertise to include innovative clean vehicle technology.

Orchid Monroe is providing support for researchers from the Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium (WEMPEC) to develop a particularly rugged experimental electric vehicle: a Ford F-150 pickup truck.

Once graduate students and Orchid Monroe engineers convert the truck to an electric vehicle powered by an Orchid-built traction motor and custom integrated motor controller package, the vehicle will become an up-to-date test bed for a wide range of battery and power train performance experiments by WEMPEC researchers.

Orchid Monroe manufactures laminated electrical grade steel components and assemblies for the automotive, electric motor, generator, lighting, transformer and wind power industries. In the past two years, the company has expanded into developing and manufacturing an electric traction drive system for buses and other large vehicle applications.

Led by electrical and computer engineering graduate student Phil Kollmeyer, a group of graduate students approached the company about supporting development of an electric truck in summer 2010. Orchid Monroe embraced the project, providing the truck and equipment, as well as setting aside facility space for students to use. "We've dreamed about developing a state-of-the-art, highly-instrumented electric vehicle, and we happened to connect with Orchid at just the right time," says Kollmeyer.

"We'll convert the truck with our motors and software and let the students drive it for a couple of years at the university to collect data," says Will Lamb, Orchid Monroe engineering manager. The data will help Orchid Monroe assess the performance of its components as the company expands into supplying the electrical drive industry.

Moving Orchid Monroe into the electric vehicle industry could be beneficial for the broader Monroe community, says vice president of sales and marketing Keith Cornacchia. "We have received an overwhelming amount of interest and encouragement, especially from the Green County Development Corp., the Monroe Chamber of Commerce and the City of Monroe," he says. "We are fortunate to be part of a fantastic community. "

Until now, a 10-year-old Corbin Sparrow (a lightweight, three-wheel electric vehicle) was the main vehicle used for electric vehicle-related experiments in WEMPEC. The new truck will use lithium-ion batteries, which are becoming standard in modern electric vehicles, as well as provide plenty of room for more instrumentation.

WEMPEC researchers will use the new electric vehicle test bed to investigate battery characteristics, such as predicting energy stored in the battery and how battery performance changes over time. They will also evaluate the performance of the major powertrain elements, including the power converter and electric machine.

Beyond studying current technologies, WEMPEC researchers also plan to use the truck to explore future possibilities for electric vehicles. "We're interested in a version of these electric vehicles that not only can be charged by a utility but also can deliver power back to that utility," says Thomas Jahns, WEMPEC co-director and the Grainger Professor of Power Electronics and Electrical Machines in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

"When plugged in, these vehicles can be used as energy storage resources that supply some of their energy back to a smart grid when needed. Using the energy stored in electric vehicle batteries could help to fill in temporary dips in the power delivered by intermittent renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind," Jahns says.

"Partnering with Orchid Monroe provides a wonderful win-win situation," he says. "There are opportunities for them to benefit in the near-term with their business plans, while creating a test bed for us to pursue research into techniques for solving our nation's long-term energy supply problems."