As a research engineer at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, Forrest Jehlik is focused on improving the technology for vehicles such as plug-in hybrids and electric cars, and increasing the use of alternative fuels that range from compressed natural gas to biofuels.
“The goal of the Department of Energy is to reduce reliance on foreign oil,” said Jehlik. “In our research on new vehicle systems and alternative fuels, we are impartial arbiters. We look to see what will reduce costs, advance the technology and make things better for the consumer and the environment.”
Jehlik’s cutting-edge research has taken him into the world of auto racing through a public-private initiative that uses motorsports to promote advanced vehicle technologies and nonpetroleum fuels that can be used on high speed race tracks. The aim of this Green Racing program, said Jehlik, is to make racing cars more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly, and hopefully to transfer the new technology to the commercial market.
Jim McFarland, a respected columnist and engineer in the automotive field, said Jehlik is the “bright light” of the Green Racing program, bringing his “enthusiasm and knowledge of alternative fuels to motor racing.”
“Forest is the driving force to help us understand the benefits of alternative fuels. He is the go-to guy,” said McFarland.” He has helped craft ways to take this new technology to the racing community.”
The Green Racing initiative, a project of the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the automotive industry group SAE International, has been adopted by the American Le Mans racing series. Many of the race participants have used new technologies and alternative fuels, resulting in lower costs and success on the track.
Jehlik said one alcohol-based renewable fuel can be made from corn or even lawn clippings and costs under $3 a gallon. He noted that traditional race cars using old technology rely on leaded fuel that can cost as much as $10 a gallon.
Much of Jehlik’s time is spent testing vehicles under different climate conditions and at varied speeds to measure energy loss and performance, and finding ways to make improvements through engineering modifications.
Jehlik said many decisions that are made in the political and commercial arenas regarding energy sources and auto technology are not always based on the best science, but driven by economic considerations and the power of vested interests. He said his federal energy laboratory engages in pure research and makes its findings widely available, letting the results speak for themselves.
“We are not paid if hydrogen or ethanol wins out. We look at the technology and the fuels and see what works,” said Jehlik. “That’s what makes us unique.”
Jehlik arrived at the national energy laboratory in 2005 as the lead technical coordinator for Challenge X, the country’s premier advanced vehicle technology competition for engineering students. Prior to joining Argonne, Jehlik was employed at General Motors for four years on a team that developed a proprietary combustion engine system.
Jehlik said he has always loved cars, and grew up in California as “a hot rod kid.” Even today, he said, he gets excited about working with automobiles.
“Every time I get a new data set on electric vehicles, or on another type of test car, it’s like Christmas. It’s like getting a new gift,” he said. “I know it’s truly geeky, but it’s neat.”
This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.