Operation seems thoroughly thought-out and was proven in 1/15-scale wind-tunnel tests. Now it must be road-tested on real trailers for practicality and decent ROI. Images and photo: Plasma Stream Technology

Operation seems thoroughly thought-out and was proven in 1/15-scale wind-tunnel tests. Now it must be road-tested on real trailers for practicality and decent ROI. Images and photo: Plasma Stream Technology

A sci-fi-like force field as an aerodynamic improver? That’s the idea of scientists and engineers working to harness plasma, the stuff of lightning and the Northern Lights, to alter the flow of air over trucks.

Controlled plasma is “real,” and could be an alternative to mechanical appendages on trailers and trucks in as little as two years, said Tim Musgrave, president and CEO of P.S.I., the maker of the tire-pressure monitoring and inflation device.

His company has invested money in Plasma Stream Technology, a small Iowa firm that’s developing the concept. It licensed the technology and design for a power supply from Notre dame based on past work done with General Motors and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said Pranay Bajjuri, an electrical engineer who's co-founder/advisor at Plasma Stream. 

For trucks, the first device would be an “electric boat tail,” he said (website here). Plasma actuators are attached to the top and sides of a trailer’s rear edges; they generate the force field to smooth air flow and greatly reduce turbulence immediately behind that otherwise causes drag. 

Electrodes inside the actuator form a plasma stream between them. The resulting force field bends and smooths air.

Electrodes inside the actuator form a plasma stream between them. The resulting force field bends and smooths air. 

Each actuator consists of two electrodes working across a plastic-type material to generate the force field, he explained. Electricity comes from a truck’s 12-volt system, from which it is stepped up to its operating level of 6 to 8 kilovolts. Current is very low, amounting to about 1 watt per meter of actuator.  

Like physical air fairings, the force field becomes more effective at higher speeds, but also requires higher electrical power, Bajjuri said. It will save as much or more than a folding boat tail but weigh much less.

The concept’s been proven in a 1/15-scale wind tunnel, and now needs to be tested on the road, Musgrave said. Several large fleets are interested. 

Actuators installed on the top and sides of a van. They will work with swing and roll-up doors.

Actuators installed on the top and sides of a van. They will work with swing and roll-up doors.

Musgrave thinks actuators could also be placed underneath and on trailer noses to generate force fields in those areas of turbulence. Flatbeds and other non-box trailers might benefit from the actuators where now the widely used fairings do not improve aerodynamics. The idea is to use Plasma Stream actuators instead of boat tails, side skirts and other current products.

“They could move air right over the top of a tractor” no matter what its physical shape is, Musgrave said. They could also replace side skirts and other devices now used on tractors. But he’s cautious.

“We’ve invested in it but we will not sell it if it’s not of the same quality as P.S.I., otherwise it will tarnish our name,” Musgrave said. “We’re only interested in marketing and selling it on tractor-trailers," for which P.S.I. has distribution rights, “not locomotives or anything else we know nothing about.” He declined to specify the amount of money invested.

As for manufacturing, “We’ll have to wait and see exactly what’s in it,” he said. “The power supply will be the most complex piece. It’s likely something that would go to the lighting manufacturers, the electrical suppliers….

“But you know fleet people. You have to prove to the industry that it’s workable, and that it’s affordable. Then we can go in with information on a reasonable return on investment.”

Author

Tom Berg
Tom Berg

Tom Berg

Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational trucks and trailers of all types.

View Bio

Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational trucks and trailers of all types.

View Bio
0 Comments