Montana State University

MSU engineering students help company find energy solutions

August 31, 2007 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


Montana State University mechanical engineering graduates Jeffrey Larsen (left) and Kylan Engelke (right) helped Joel Lindstrom (center) of Leonardo Technologies Inc., build part of a system to get more energy out of oils from Montana-grown seed crops. Lindstrom holds oil pressed from camelina grown on Ted Turner's Flying D Ranch near Gallatin Gateway as well as from the farms of Bill O'Connell and Brian Goldhahn near Springhill. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.)   High-Res Available

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A project by three Montana State University engineering students is helping a company find new ways to get more energy out of diesel fuel and Montana-grown vegetable oils. It's also landed one student a job and funding for a graduate degree.

Mechanical engineering students Kylan Engelke, Scott Dent and Jeffrey Larsen spent last academic year working on a fuel delivery system for a reformer, a device that breaks vegetable oil or diesel fuel into hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide.

"Simply burning vegetable oil or diesel fuel in an engine is really not that efficient. It's the case with chemically combusting any hydrocarbon fuel," said Stephen Sofie, the students' faculty advisor on the project. "For example, when gasoline is burned in a car's engine, only 10 percent to 15 percent of that energy is harnessed for running the engine. The rest is rejected as waste heat."

The hydrogen and carbon monoxide from "reformed" vegetable oil or diesel fuel can be used in fuel cells, or other technologies, where energy efficiencies can exceed 40 percent, Sofie said.

The project was a capstone for the three mechanical engineering students. During their senior year, all MSU engineering students work in groups on a long-term, hands-on project that puts their classroom training to a practical application.

"This was pretty much the only real engineering I had done in school," said Engelke, of Culbertson. "Without this senior design class, a lot of this engineering stuff can seem a little pointless, but the capstone ties together all the math, the thermodynamics, all of it. It was definitely a good experience."

The project was sponsored by Leonardo Technologies, Inc., an Ohio-based company with a research lab in Bozeman. LTI specializes in energy, engineering, and management services. Its Bozeman office is focused on devices that get more energy out of traditional fuels as well as Montana-grown seed oils. The company is currently working with camelina grown on Ted Turner's Flying D Ranch near Gallatin Gateway and from the farms of Bill O'Connell and Brian Goldhahn near Springhill.

"The whole project was great," said Joel Lindstrom, LTI's Bozeman manager. "At the beginning, I spent a lot of time with the students. Then after a few months, they were able to work independently. It was a very complicated project and they did well handling the open-endedness of the design."

LTI needed a specialized fuel-delivery system that could heat vegetable oil, diesel fuel, and potentially coal slurry, to a variety of temperatures; pump the fuels at different pressures while atomize the fuel into fine, mist-like droplets.

"It was fun to actually get a good hands-on project and have an idea of what the goal was," said Jeffrey Larsen, of Bothell, Wash. "The whole project was super-rewarding. It was fun working with Joel and on something a little cutting edge."

LTI hired Engelke and is sponsoring his graduate studies in mechanical engineering.

"I was pretty much dead set that I was not going to graduate school. I was sick of school," Engelke said. "But I liked working with Joel, and Leonardo wanted to sponsor a grad student, so that brought it all together for me."

Larsen also decided to pursue a graduate degree in mechanical engineering.

"Working on the system showed me there was room for more education," Larsen said. "I'd like to eventually get into some type of research position that is hands on. I definitely grew to like that aspect of engineering from the capstone project."

Leonardo Technologies' sponsorship of the project cost $3,500 -- almost exclusively for materials. The company plans to continue using the fuel-delivery system the students built for the foreseeable future.

"I thought there was a pretty good chance we would succeed and we did," Lindstrom said. "I think it went as well as it could have. I had students who really cared about the project."

Sofie, the students' faculty advisor, sees such capstone work as invaluable to preparing students for life after graduation.

"This kind of experience teaches students to interact with people who may someday be their bosses," Sofie said. "It makes them realize that someday they will no longer be students. They will be professionals."

Contact: Joel Lindstrom, Leonardo Technologies, Inc., (406) 585-3760 or jlindstrom@lti-global.com; Kylan Engelke, (406) 790-0007 or kengelke@lti-global.com; Jeffrey Larsen, (406) 599-1793 or Jeffrey.Larsen@myportal.montana.edu; Stephen Sofie, (406) 994-6299 or ssofie@me.montana.edu.