WWU Emerges as a National Leader in Innovative Car Design

Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch has been rerunning articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article appeared in the January 2001 issue of Whatcom Watch.

Editor’s Note: For a history on Viking series cars ,go to: https://vri.wwu.edu/viking-series-cars-history

by Lori Spicher

The Vehicle Research Institute at Western Washington University has been dedicated to building a better car for over 20 years. It is generally considered one of the top schools for vehicle design in the country.

Director Dr. Michael Seal officially founded the Vehicle Research Institute in 1974. Since then he, his faculty, and students, have designed and built many cars that exceed the standards of their contemporary consumer counterparts.

Whether the goal is improved handling, fuel efficiency, crash safety or type of propulsion, the Viking cars consistently outperform any car available in the general consumer market.

Auto Industry Avoids Fuel-Efficient Cars
When a bunch of students on a shoestring budget can build from scratch a car that exceeds 100 miles to the gallon, why can’t consumers buy a car that gets 50, 60 or even 70 miles per gallon? With all the industry’s resources, why do auto makers fail where the Vehicle Research Institute succeeds? In Dr. Seal’s opinion, the industry erroneously feels there is no market for fuel-efficient, low emissions cars.

Hiding behind so-called consumer desires is not a new position for the auto industry. When charged with the unnecessary degree of danger in their cars, Detroit responded by saying that consumers didn’t want to buy a safer car. They did not relent until federal regulations forced safety issues upon them. Now, many auto makers use safety as a marketing tool.

Foreign Auto Makers Market New Hybrid
Fortunately, U.S. auto makers are no longer the last word in the industry. Honda and Toyota are trumping this emerging market with gas-electric hybrid production cars.

It is now possible to buy a fuel- efficient, low emissions, hybrid car. The battery sustaining generator is not the cleanest way to make an electric car. But until either battery technology improves dramatically or consumer requirements change, it may be the only marketable alternative to the internal combustion engine.

Most currently available batteries have a range of only about 50 miles before they need to be recharged. While this is more than enough for the average daily commute, it lacks the flexibility many consumers want.

High Efficiency, Low Emission Cars
The Vehicle Research Institute’s most exciting and noteworthy accomplishments are in the areas of emissions, fuel economy, and alternative energy sources.

In 1975, Viking 2 achieved fuel efficiency of 58 miles per gallon on propane fuel. Safety considerations were addressed in 1978 with the Viking 6, which demonstrated that a fuel-efficient car could comply with federal crash safety standards. This car achieves 118 miles per gallon at 50 miles per hour.

With the Viking 7, the Vehicle Research Institute showed that high-performance cars could be made more efficient. Its highway rating is only 50 miles per gallon, but this rating leaves production sports cars far behind.

Several award-winning hybrid Viking cars prove that emissions and fuel consumption can be dramatically reduced, while still meeting consumer demands.

Running on Sun Power
The Vehicle Research Institute’s work on solar car technology has, so far, fallen short of producing a marketable solar car, but their solar cars have won several honors.

Viking 20 won the two-person vehicle class and placed fifth overall in the World Solar Challenge. Viking 21 won its class in the 1992 Pikes Peak Solar Electric Challenge and the 1993 Tour de Sol.

Can this technology replace the internal combustion engine? Dr. Seal does not think a marketable solar powered car can be produced in the near future. The amount of energy reaching the earth from the sun is not enough to propel a car that weighs more than a few hundred pounds. An ultra lightweight car would be a radical leap for the American consumer.

The Sunless Alternative
Building on solar cell technology has lead to some truly innovative developments at the Vehicle Research Institute. Viking 29 is the world’s first thermophotovoltaic (TPV) car.

A compressed natural gas burner produces infrared energy, which is collected by solar cells. This generator charges a battery, which runs the electric motor. It is sometimes called the “Midnight Sun” generator, because the burner is analogous to a tiny sun.

Compressed natural gas is burned in a ceramic tube which glows red-hot up to 1700 degrees Kelvin. The photovoltaic cells which surround the tube receive infrared photons from the emitter and convert them to electric power.

The infrared power intensities at the cell are 1,000 times higher than the sunlight on the roof of a car. The infrared photons generated activate the photovoltaic cells to produce electricity. The generator is very clean and quiet.

Though Dr. Seal says this is not quite as clean as a battery-depleting engine that is charged from the power grid, it is even cleaner than a combustion natural gas battery-charging generator.

The internal combustion engine relies on periodic explosions, which produce greater emissions. The TPV generator, which burns continuously, produces complete and clean combustion. Because the thermophotovoltaic car has the greater range of the battery sustaining systems, it is likely to be more marketable than an electric-only car.

This technology is very new, however, and needs much improvement. Dr. Seal would like to see the generator’s durability and efficiency fine-tuned. Unfortunately, further government funding has been held up because of the recent presidential election controversy.

Finding Funding for Research and Development
The Vehicle Research Institute has always needed to seek outside funding. Sponsors have included both government and private sources.

For example, The National Highway and Traffic Safety Authority funded much of the Viking 6 project. General Motors sponsored the Viking 20 World Solar Challenge entry after the car placed second in GM’s Sunrayce.

JX Crystals, a photovoltaic cell production company in Issaquah Washington, helped fund the TPV development along with the Departments of Energy and Defense. Defense? Dr. Seal is quick to point out that the Department of Defense funding is for development of a field generator that is silent, clean and has a relatively low thermal output.

“We do not make weapons; we have no interest in making weapons, and we will not make weapons in the future,” says Dr. Seal. The Defense Department is their best hope for further funding to perfect the thermophotovoltaic technology. Until more funding becomes available, the project is on hold.

When this article was written, Lori Spicher was a freelance writer living in Whatcom County.