University of Minnesota to house new $21 million research center

May 18, 2006

Discovering ways to reduce fuel consumption, developing devices for people with mobility impairments and designing state-of-the-art rescue robots are just three of the goals of a new multimillion-dollar research center that will be based at the University of Minnesota.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently announced a $15 million, five-year grant to support the new Engineering Research Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power. Industry partners will augment NSF funding with $3 million, and seven universities involved in the center will contribute an additional $3 million.

"This center will advance fundamental knowledge, providing a platform for technology that will spawn new industries. We are impressed with the ambitious goals of the center for research and education and the strong partnership with industry," said Lynn Preston, leader of the Engineering Research Centers Program at NSF.

"Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the United States led the world in fluid-power research, but now Europe and Asia have passed us by," said Kim Stelson, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota and director of the new research center. "We hope that this new center will get us back on track in this growing field."

Stelson said the University of Minnesota led the effort for the new research center and built an outstanding team of fluid-power researchers from across the country, which resulted in the proposal's success.

Fluid-power technology encompasses most applications that use liquids or gases to transmit power in the form of mechanical work or pressure. The complexity of these systems ranges from a simple hydraulic car jack to sophisticated airplane controls that rely on high-pressure hydraulic systems. Fluid power is a $33 billion industry. Industry areas include aerospace, agriculture, construction, health care, manufacturing, mining, and transportation.

With help from the National Fluid Power Association, more than 50 companies have agreed to provide support for the research center. Seven of those companies have annual sales of more than $500 million.

"This kind of industry support for an NSF-sponsored research center is unprecedented," said Steven Crouch, dean of the Institute of Technology, the University of Minnesota's college of engineering, physical sciences, and mathematics. "It clearly shows that we have the support to ensure the center's success."

Researchers at the center will study ways to use fluid power more efficiently in manufacturing, agriculture, construction and mining. Each 10 percent improvement in efficiency of current uses of fluid power in these industries will save about $7 billion a year in U.S. energy costs. Researchers will also work to develop hydraulic-hybrid passenger cars that are less expensive and more efficient than current electric hybrids. A 10 percent improvement in efficiency in national passenger-car energy use will save about $100 billion a year.

Another goal of the research center is to develop portable, wearable and autonomous fluid-power devices capable of operating for long periods of time without external energy sources. This technology could lead to new medical and rehabilitation devices and robots that could be used in rescue missions.

"This center will allow the University of Minnesota to take a leadership role in defining new research frontiers in mechanical engineering," said Peter McMurry, head of the University of Minnesota's mechanical engineering department. "Our students also will have the benefit of working with a team of top researchers from around the world in a variety of disciplines, including biomedical engineering, chemistry, computer science and manufacturing."

In addition to research, the center will be involved in developing youth education programs, improving efforts to increase student diversity in engineering, designing internship and exchange programs for undergraduate and graduate students, and offering short courses and labs for industry workers.

Other core universities involved in the center are the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Georgia Institute of Technology, Purdue University and Vanderbilt University. Outreach universities include the Milwaukee School of Engineering and North Carolina A&T State University. Outreach institutions include the National Fluid Power Association, Project Lead the Way and the Science Museum of Minnesota.
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Twin Cities area industry partners include Caterpillar, Toro, Eaton Corp., R.T. Dygert International, Sauer-Danfoss and Tennant Co.

NSF-funded Engineering Research Centers conduct pioneering research in emerging technologies and train the next generation of engineers to be leaders in innovation. Each center, while based at one university, is a collaborative partnership drawing together individuals and resources from other universities, industry partners, and pre-college teachers and students.

University of Minnesota

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