The last time I visited James O’Brien and his Hybra-Drive Systems in tiny Deerfield, on the Lenawee-Monroe county line, he drove me around in an old Volkswagen Beetle powered by a 6.5-hp lawn mower engine. The engine ran a hydraulic hybrid system that could get the Bug up to 25 mph, an amazing acheivement for that small of a power plant.
Well, it’s even more amazing what a few years and a few million bucks will do.
The company, now known as NRG Dynamix, has drawn $4 million in venture capital and a $3.3 million loan from the state’s 21st Century Jobs Fund. It’s expanded from 5,600 square feet to 17,000 square feet, moving into a former bowling alley building next door. It’s grown from half a dozen employees to 30 today. And even at that, the company is bursting at the seams and is looking for 30,000 to 50,000 square feet of space in Washtenaw, Lenawee or Monroe county.
And, O’Brien said, “we’ve gone from science experiments to stuff that’s starting to look like product.”
One of which I drove — a 2009 Ford Ranger equipped with NRG’s hydraulic hybrid drive. Its stock 2.3-liter four cylinder engine now charges up the hydraulics, providing 32 mpg in city driving, twice as good as a gasoline Ranger. It’s intended as a delivery vehicle. Other than the gas engine turning on and off during driving, which takes a bit of getting used to, the system’s performance was flawless.
“The current prototype doesn’t, but eventually hydraulic hybrids will have the gas engine on most or all of the time — that actually helps with emissions,” O’Brien said. “With a vehicle running at 70 mph, you will have the engine at idle, occasionally go up to 2,200 rpm or so, then go back to idle, which is still enough to keep emission control systems running, and keep the fluid pressurized.”
In NRG’s hydraulic hybrids, the gasoline engine pressurizes a tank of nitrogen gas called an accumulator. That gas in turn forces hydraulic fluid past transmission gears, propelling the vehicle.
O’Brien said you’ll start ot see pre-production vehicles from NRG in 2012 — maybe even late this year — with production vehicles following in 2013.
“Really, we are more constrained by funding than we are by the limits of the technology,” O’Brien said. “We’re always looking for funding. That’s a never ending quest, and a never ending story.”
The reason? “It’s hard to get funding in transportation,” O’Brien said. “Some of the electric and hybrid electric technologies have not worked as well as people had hoped, so I think we’re going through a little burst of the bubble, and it’s hard to convince people about a different type of hybrid technology.”
O’Brien, an engineer himself, said he’s been working on alternative propulsion systems “literally since my sixth grade science fair project.” He said hydraulic hybrid technology offers fundamental mechanical advantages over either electric hybrids or pneumatic (compressed air) hybrids.
He said that earlier in his career, “I really thought electric was going to be the way to go, then in the mid- to late 90s, I realized that there were problems with batteries and motors that nobody could fix, so I began researching hydraulics and pneumatics, and decided hydraulics were the best candidate for hybridization.”
Before founding NRG, O’Brien worked for Ford Motor Co. Other career stops included engineering elevators and fire escape systems, and operating O’Brien Engineered Products, which did freelance engineering projects.
Today NRG has deals with the Department of Defense for a retrofittable hydraulic hybrid system for some of its vehicles, and is working with AM General on a project. Other projects are in the works.
The company is hiring too: “We’re actively looking for electrical and mechanical engineers, especially with experience in vehicle calibration and hydraulics.”
And O’Brien also said he’s looking forward to the day when his hydraulic hybrid technology gets into the wild with gearheads.
“This technology was originally developed to be a performance technology, not just a fuel efficiency technology,” O’Brien said. “We look forward to what people will do with this technology to make their cars perform better. I think people will have a lot of fun with this technology once it hits the street.”
More at www.nrgdynamix.com.