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MITs Regenerative Shock Absorber Project Rides Smooth Road to Release

A team of MIT undergraduate students has invented a shock absorber that harnesses energy from small bumps in the road, generating electricity while it smoothes the ride more effectively than conventional shocks. The students hope to initially find customers among companies that operate large fleets of heavy vehicles. They have already drawn interest from the United States military and several truck manufacturers.

Senior Shakeel Avadhany and his teammates say they can produce up to a 10 percent improvement in overall vehicle fuel efficiency by using the regenerative shock absorbers. AM General, the company that produces Humvees for the army and is currently working on development of the next-generation version of the all-purpose vehicle, has lent the team a vehicle for testing purposes.

The project came about because "we wanted to figure out where energy is being wasted in a vehicle," senior Zack Anderson said. Some hybrid cars already do a good job of recovering the energy from braking, so the team looked elsewhere, and quickly homed in on the suspension.

They began by renting a variety of different car models, outfitting the suspension with sensors to determine the energy potential, and driving around with a laptop computer recording the sensor data. Their tests showed "a significant amount of energy" was being wasted in conventional suspension systems, "especially for heavy vehicles," said Anderson.

The students set about building a prototype system to harness the wasted power. Their prototype shock absorbers use a hydraulic system that forces fluid through a turbine attached to a generator. The system is controlled by an active electronic system that optimizes the damping, providing a smoother ride than conventional shocks, while generating electricity to recharge the batteries or operate electrical equipment.

In their testing so far, the students found that in a six-shock heavy truck, each shock absorber could generate up to an average of 1 kW on a standard road--enough power to displace the large alternator load in heavy trucks and military vehicles, and in some cases run accessory devices such as hybrid trailer refrigeration units.

The team filed for a patent last year and formed a company, called Levant Power, to develop and commercialize the product. They are currently doing a series of tests with their converted Humvee to optimize the system's efficiency. They hope their technology will help give an edge to the military vehicle company in securing a $40 billion contract for the new army vehicle, called the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, or JLTV.

The team has received help from MIT's Venture Mentoring Service and has been advised by Yet-Ming Chiang, a professor of ceramics in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and founder of A123 Systems, a supplier of high-power lithium-ion batteries.

Not only would improved fuel efficiency be a big plus for the army by requiring less stockpiling and transportation of fuel into the war zone, but the better ride produced by the actively controlled shock absorbers makes for safer handling, the students said. "If it's a smoother ride, you can go over the terrain faster," said Anderson.

The new shocks also have a fail-safe feature: If the electronics fail for any reason, the system simply acts like a regular shock absorber.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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