By Rachael Rees
Onboard Dynamics Inc., of Bend has been tentatively selected to receive a $3.6 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy to commercialize a natural-gas refueling system for vehicles.
The technology, developed by Chris Hagen, an assistant professor at Oregon State University-Cascades, modifies a piston engine so one of the cylinders can operate in two modes.
It can power the vehicle, as well as compress natural gas coming from a low-pressure supply line at a home or business and send it to the fuel tank to be stored for later use. In August, Hagen joined with Rita Hansen and Jeff Witwer to form Onboard Dynamics.
“We are the first company that’s been created from technology … initiated from research performed at OSU-Cascades through one of its professors,” said Hansen, Onboard CEO. “There are lots of professors that have these great ideas but don’t know how to get them from their head, into a lab and into the marketplace, and so that’s where Chris is unique in his ability to co-found a business.”
The project is one of 13 being funded under the Department of Energy’s Methane Opportunities for Vehicular Energy program, which began in 2012. The $3.6 million award would be the third allocation of funds for the project. Hagen received a $700,000 research grant to develop the proof of concept and $300,000 in follow-up funding.
“The $1 million allowed Chris to build the test engine and demonstrate that it’s a feasible technology and that in-cylinder compression works,” Hansen said.
The MOVE program seeks to create cost-effective ways to power passenger cars and smaller vehicles with natural gas, which costs less than gasoline and produces fewer emissions, according to the program’s website. The lack of natural-gas refueling stations across the nation limits the adoption of natural-gas powered vehicles. But many homes use natural gas for heat and cooking.
“Sixty million homes have natural gas, so in a sense we have an infrastructure for natural gas, but we can’t tap into it,” said Dane Boysen, program director at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, in a video. “And that’s where Oregon State came up with the concept of simply taking an engine and taking one of the cylinders and turning it into a compressor.”
Hagen said the $3.6 million would allow the company to commercialize the self-refueling technology.
“Local entrepreneurs have really put a lot of effort into growing the company and the company’s efforts and it would validate those efforts,” Hagen said. “It gives us an outlet for future technologies, future ideas and hopefully employment opportunities for my students.”
Additionally, Hansen said, the funds will allow Onboard to find the space, people and capital to build the company.
Onboard plans to initially target small fleet owners with pick-up trucks. It later hopes to license the technology to automobile manufacturers, she said.
Becky Johnson, vice president for OSU-Cascades, said Hagen’s research shows the community that the work taking place at OSU-Cascades is on par with Corvallis.
“The fact that his research has led to a startup company in Central Oregon is exactly the example of what a four-year university can do for the economy,” she said.