Bend-based Onboard Dynamics has inked its first demonstration contract for the natural gas-compressing engine developed at OSU-Cascades.

Onboard announced this week that it will deliver by June 30 the gas-compressing engine to Southern California Gas Co., which will use it to demonstrate on-site refueling at two California school districts with natural gas bus fleets.

Although the agreement with SoCalGas is for demonstration purposes, Onboard CEO Rita Hansen said the company will also acquire Onboard’s product. “We’re certainly considering it our first customer.”

The Onboard engine, conceived by OSU professor Chris Hagen, runs on natural gas, but it can also compress its own gas, eliminating dependence on commercial fueling stations. The company’s initial plan for commercialization hinged on partnering with a vehicle manufacturer, a process that could take several more years. About a year ago, however, Hansen said Onboard developed a parallel plan to market the engine as a stand-alone product, providing existing natural gas fleets a more convenient way to refuel.

The Onboard compressor is mounted on a trailer, so fleet operators don’t have to send vehicles to public refueling stations. It can also serve as a backup to on-site refueling stations.

SoCalGas saw the value of the technology for operators of small fleets of vehicles powered by compressed natural gas, known as CNG, and for future fuel sales. “This, in turn, may lead to an accelerated adoption of CNG,” Lisa Alexander, vice president of customer solutions and communications, said in a press release.

Onboard’s first test site will be in El Monte, California, where the school district uses eight compressed natural gas buses, Hansen said. The district’s refueling station broke down, so the fleet operator has been sending drivers off-site to refuel, she said. The second demonstration site will be at Antelope Valley Schools Transportation Agency in Lancaster, California, which will use the Onboard engine as a backup refueling station.

If those demos run well, Hansen said Onboard could ink new, ongoing contracts directly with those districts. In the meantime, Hansen said Onboard is marketing its compression engines to various fleet operators.

“I’m hoping by the end of the year we would see a half a dozen contracts in place,” she said.

The Onboard engines will be built at U.S. Metal Works in Sandy.

Onboard has received $6 million in federal energy-innovation grants. The most recent round, awarded in spring 2016, was to support commercialization of the technology.

Hansen said Onboard’s first profit could be in the not-too-distant future. “Our goal is that we’re going to be turning a profit in 2018,” she said. “It might be toward the end of 2018.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, kmclaughlin@bendbulletin.com

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