Driving on Natural Gas

Onboard Dynamics CEO Rita Hansen, far right, discusses efforts to commercialize a new natural-gas engine with engineers and Oregon State alumni Robert Elgin III, left, and Shaun Mayea. (Photo: Carla Perez)

A recent graduate of the Oregon State University Advantage Accelerator/RAIN Corvallis continues to drive its business forward — including all the way to the White House.

Bend-based Onboard Dynamics, which is commercializing research by OSUCascades energy systems engineering professor Chris Hagen, was one of the 32 startup businesses nationwide invited to the first-ever White House Demo Day last summer. CEO Rita Hansen and vice president and co-founder Jeff Witwer pitched their company to President Barack Obama, investors, entrepreneurs and foundations.

Presenting at the White House gives Onboard Dynamics “a tremendous amount of leverage” for commercializing its technology to use a vehicle’s own engine to compress natural gas, says Hansen. The company is aggressively assembling a network of industrial partners to help bring its products to market, including natural-gas utilities, truck engine manufacturers and firms developing natural-gas refueling systems.

Onboard Dynamics sees fleet operators as the most promising first customers and is partnering with the Deschutes County Road Department to test a Ford F-250 truck equipped with a compressed-natural-gas (CNG) engine. The company expects its first commercial products to be available in mid-2016.

The Advantage Accelerator/RAIN Corvallis has been instrumental in moving Onboard Dynamics from concept to commercialization. The company has received financial support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), Oregon BEST and Oregon State University’s Venture Development Fund, as well as from strategic partners and private investors.

Hagen’s research addresses the major challenge for fueling vehicles with compressed natural gas: lack of infrastructure. There are only 800 public CNG stations nationwide, compared to more than 160,000 gasoline stations. So Hagen has developed technology that uses automotive engines to compress natural gas from an existing low-pressure gas line. The technology can be deployed either as a mobile refueling system or integrated into a vehicle’s own engine.

Since Onboard Dynamics was founded in 2013, the company and its technology have evolved. Hagen’s initial design used one cylinder of a six-cylinder engine for compression. For further development, Onboard Dynamics chose Ford’s 6.2-liter “Boss” V-8 engine, employing as much of the existing engine as possible. During fill mode, four of the cylinders fire, driving four cylinders that compress fuel rather than burn it. The dual-mode engine can refuel itself in about 15 minutes