WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Flying High with Lightweight Engine Design

Jan 17, 2012

Macomb, IL – When Western Illinois University engineering professor Rafael Obregon talks about his current project, he's reminded of the Wright brothers: "Before they were able to fly for the first time, there were a lot of trials that never [worked]."

Obregon's current project pairs him with a long-time collaborator, Dan Meyer of Innovative Design and Research Corporation in Rushville.

A bit like the Wright brothers' bicycle shop, Meyer's IDRC is a small business; most of the time Meyer operates alone. But now, the two are paired up to develop an engine for the Department of Defense.

Both were students at Western twenty years ago, and for as long as they've known each other, Meyer has been working on a design for a smaller engine. The concept is lean, but still muscular.

"Basically, the idea that he came up with makes it possible to have a much smaller engine. Of course, that's less weight, less material, more efficiency, also, but still producing enough power to do basically almost any application," said Obregon.

Obregon sees his role as giving Meyer's idea the "formality" it needs to present it to the Department of Defense. The Department wants to see how the engine might fit into an unmanned aerial vehicle, what's commonly known as a drone.

Unlike the Wright brothers, Obregon uses sophisticated computer software to try ideas, refine them, and improve them, before using any actual materials. This saves money and time. Obregon says it's called "virtual prototyping."

"What happens if there is so much pressure on the chamber? How is that going to be transferred to the piston, to the crankshaft; how that translates to motion. The computer helps us to start predicting all that," Obregon said.

He can shape the virtual engine, pieces can be added to it, different materials can be used for it. The weight and center of gravity can be changed, and different conditions can be calculated and simulated, all at a minimal cost.

The computer software can give them a feel for the behaviors of the structure. The virtual modeling is highly accurate.

"In the past a lot of this stuff was on trial-and-error. People will build something, and it sometimes will work, and sometimes it will blow up," Obregon said. "[But now] We can predict, with quite a bit of confidence, saying, well, It will work.'"

Obregon said they don't need the resources of a big research institution. Obregon and Meyer were handing in their submissions for grant money right along side those from bigger universities, such as Purdue. Their proposal was selected from more than 30 that were submitted.

"Technology is leveling the competition. Because, while Boeing can do whatever they want -- they have all the people, all the money, and all the experience in the world -- but now we have this little business in Rushville, Illinois, in the middle of a cornfield, and, Dan Meyer, me, IDRC, Western, we're competing with the big guys," Obregon said.

The purpose of the grant money is to link a small business with a university or a research institution. Western Illinois students on both the Macomb and the Quad Cities campuses are involved in the manufacturing of the parts for the prototype engine.

"Transforming a blueprint into a part is not difficult, as long as you have the equipment," Obregon said.

In Macomb, parts are being made in the campus' machining laboratory. They include the case for the engine, and components for the oil and fuel systems.

Some components are also being made at the Quad Cities Manufacturing Lab at the Rock Island Arsenal, which has a separate contract with Western Illinois University. The Manufacturing Laboratory is using state-of-the-art technology to produce the crankshaft and the engine out of a lightweight metal.

The assembly of these parts is set for the summer, and testing is planned for the fall. Testing will be done at Dan Meyer's Rushville facility to determine the engine's endurance.

If the Defense Department is satisfied with the results, then another engine -- a working prototype -- will be built for field-testing.

Obregon is optimistic: "We'll be lucky enough to see this flying someday."

Dan Meyer already has one patent for his engine, and commercialization can be pursued.

The engine might also have more everyday uses. For example, it might be used in small power generators, motorcycles, or lawnmowers, according to Obregon.

Unlike the Wright brothers, you won't have to drive the thing off of a cliff to see if it works.