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Uday Vaidya works at the Fibers and Composites Manufacturing Facility.

Volkswagen, UT, and ORNL Announce Partnership, Innovation Hub

Volkswagen Group of America; the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; the UT Research Foundation; and Oak Ridge National Laboratory today announced a partnership to create Volkswagen’s first innovation hub in North America at the UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm.

The partnership is leveraging the expertise of ORNL scientists and several faculty members within the Tickle College of Engineering at UT to develop lighter vehicle components made from composite materials and to electrify vehicles—two areas where UT is at the forefront of research and expertise.

“Working with the University of Tennessee is a great opportunity to continue growing Volkswagen’s engineering footprint in the North American region,” said Wolfgang Demmelbauer-Ebner, executive vice president and chief engineering officer for Volkswagen’s North American region. “This hub, along with other research institutions here, is an integral part of Volkswagen’s global research and development efforts and can also directly contribute to vehicles in North America.”

Daniel Costinett works with students in the Power Lab.

Interdisciplinary Engagement

The work—some of the most innovative applied research of its kind being done anywhere in the world—is being led by UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Uday Vaidya from the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering. His team is focused on several research and development activities to support prototyping, develop a sheet molding compound, and evaluate materials and their properties for use in Volkswagen vehicle components.

From the Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Min H. Kao Professor Leon Tolbert and Associate Professor Daniel Costinett are focusing on research that has been pioneered by their counterparts at ORNL—the wireless charging of parked electric vehicles as well as dynamic charging, in which roadways are embedded with a system that charges electric vehicles as they move. A second project involves packaging wide bandgap power electronics in order to increase power density and efficiency. The realization of these technologies will reduce battery size and vehicle weight, resulting in longer driving distances between charging.

Other EECS faculty involved include Associate Professor Kevin Bai, Professor and Condra Chair of Excellence in Power Electronics Fred Wang, and Assistant Professor Helen Cui.

From the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Peebles Professor Dayakar Penumadu is providing his expertise in materials characterization for lightweight composites.

Dayakar Penumadu.

It is truly gratifying to be involved in developing this VW partnership with UT, which is providing our students and staff with industrially relevant research and development opportunities that are bound to have significant economic and environmental benefits for Tennessee and the country.”

—Dayakar Penumadu

Student Engagement

As part of the partnership, Volkswagen has awarded fellowships to doctoral students Andrew Foote and Nathan Strain from EECS and William Henken from CEE.

“The collaboration is providing unique opportunities for our undergraduate and graduate students and researchers in advanced materials and additive manufacturing. Working alongside Volkswagen engineers and managers in this real-world experience is extremely valuable for their career paths,” said Vaidya.

IACMI’s Sean Lee and Tessa Patton work on the composite liftgate created for Volkswagen in their lab at SERF (Science Engineering Research Facility) on the campus of UT Knoxville. December 11, 2019. Photo by Sam Thomas.
IACMI’s Sean Lee and Tessa Patton work on the composite liftgate created for Volkswagen in their lab at SERF (Science Engineering Research Facility) on the campus of UT Knoxville. December 11, 2019. Photo by Sam Thomas.

Economic Impact

Today’s announcement is another accomplishment for a region that is known for its strengths in the areas of advanced and additive manufacturing.

“The partnership between UT, ORNL, and Volkswagen strengthens Tennessee’s position as a significant source of innovation and talent for the Volkswagen North American manufacturing base, especially at the flagship Chattanooga facility,” said UT System Interim President Randy Boyd. “These types of partnerships are transforming the Tennessee Valley Corridor into a global innovation leader.”

Volkswagen has been a valued partner of UT since opening its Chattanooga Assembly plant in 2011. The Chattanooga facility produces the Volkswagen Passat sedan and Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport SUVs, specifically designed for the North American market. This past fall Volkswagen of America broke ground on a new electric vehicle production facility, which includes a 564,000-square-foot body shop addition and up to 1,000 new jobs in Tennessee.

Volkswagen also is a member of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI), which is supported by the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office. A team of IACMI undergraduate and graduate students and researchers led by Vaidya created a novel composite liftgate for the Volkswagen Atlas that reduces weight by 35 percent, with lower investment costs and an improved environmental footprint compared to a conventional part. Researchers from ORNL, Purdue University, and Michigan State University were integral collaborators on the effort.

The innovations stemming from the IACMI partnership with Volkswagen have a direct and immediate impact on vehicle design and manufacturing right here in Tennessee. These collaborative discoveries demonstrate the real-world potential of public-private partnerships.”

—Donde Plowman
UT Knoxville Chancellor

The new innovation hub in Knoxville will join Volkswagen’s larger global innovation ecosystem. This includes innovation centers in Belmont, California; Wolfsburg, Germany; and Beijing, China, along with innovation hubs in Barcelona, Spain; Tel Aviv, Israel; and Tokyo, Japan.

Members of the Volkswagen Innovation Hub speak with UT President Randy Boyd.
Credit: UT System Photo

Liftgate Innovation Team Shines During “UT Day on the Hill” in Nashville

The recent “UT Day on the Hill” event in Nashville marked another successful annual showcase of research, faculty, and students from across the UT system.

One such team taking part in the event had strong ties to the Tickle College of Engineering’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering.

“Liftgate Innovation and Benefits for the State of Tennessee,” merged the expertise of Fred N. Peebles Professor and UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Joint Institute for Advanced Materials Chair of Excellence Dayakar Penumadu, of CEE, and Governor’s Chair for Advanced Composites Manufacturing and IACMI – The Composites Institute Chief Technology Officer Uday Vaidya, of MABE.

“This event was a great opportunity to highlight the work that has already been done, both between UT, ORNL, and IACMI, as well as with Volkswagen,” Penumadu said. “It allowed us to show elected officials how some of the biggest research areas in the state are working with one of its preeminent businesses, providing a benefit to Tennesseans in the process.”

The team has specifically focused on producing lift gates for automobiles through the use of advanced composites, manufacturing processes, and materials.

Students helped push forward research related to sheet molding compounds, developed new prototypes, and studied properties of various materials to find out their pros and cons.

“The various stages of the materials development, design, characterization and manufacturing of the product were highlighted,” said Vaidya.

Undergraduate student Sean Lee, graduate student Hannah Maeser, and post-doctoral research associate Stephen Young were among students taking part who went on the trip to the state’s capitol, even getting to talk to Interim UT System President Randy Boyd about their project.

The team’s work was also highlighted for Volkswagen officials in January, when some of the automotive giant’s senior leadership came to UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm to announce they were collaborating with UT and ORNL on a new innovation hub, their first in North America.