The Future of Pneumatics at Vanderbilt University

Eric Lanke NFPA CEO

by Eric Lanke

I recently attended the Fluid Power Innovation and Research Conference (FPIRC), sponsored by NFPA and the Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power (CCEFP). Our host was Vanderbilt University in Nashville and, like all the universities engaged with the CCEFP, they had a lot to show us about how they are engaging students in the development of fundamental knowledge and pre-competitive discovery in fluid power.

Vanderbilt’s focus is increasingly on pneumatics. In fact, Professor Eric Barth of Vanderbilt has recently been named a Deputy Director of the CCEFP with a special focus on pneumatics. That’s Eric in the photo attached to this post, explaining one of the student research projects to the assembled group of industry that attended the FPIRC. The project demonstrated the practical application of two new ideas for pneumatics:

  • Recycling the exhaust gas of one pneumatic circuit to accomplish productive work in a second. That’s exactly what’s mounted on the demonstration board—two pneumatic cylinders, the first powered by a direct power supply, and the second powered by the exhaust gas of the first that is being captured and recycled instead of being vented to atmosphere.
  • Using a strain energy accumulator. That’s how the exhaust gas is being captured and recycled. Instead of a typical accumulator, where energy is stored in the compression of a gas, in a strain energy accumulator the energy is stored in the strain of stretched rubber.

According to Joshua Cummins, the student running this project (who is standing behind Eric Barth in the picture), strain energy accumulators are three times more energy dense than standard gas accumulators, and their use in this circuit provides an overall savings of 20% on the energy it would typically take to run the two cylinders in the traditional fashion.

Joshua is just one of the students working on the future of pneumatics at Vanderbilt University. There are plenty of other projects and an increasing amount of institutional momentum there. Eric also used the FPIRC to introduce industry to a new project he will be spearheading. They’re calling it the Pneumatic Assembly Demonstrator, and it’s essentially a full-scale portion of an assembly line on which they can demonstrate many of the new concepts and capabilities that Eric and his students have been working on. In addition to exhaust gas recovery and strain energy accumulators, that includes:

  • Precision control using proportional pneumatic valves.
  • Pressure-sensorless impedance control for robotic assembly and manipulation.
  • Nonlinear observer strategies to eliminate or reduce costly sensors.
  • Observe strategies for fault detection and diagnosis.

They’re looking for industry support to make this happen. Click here for a pdf brochure describing the project in greater detail.

What I saw at Vanderbilt was impressive, and none of it would have been possible without the on-going support of NFPA and that of our members of the CCEFP. This is the fruit that those investments are beginning to bear, and it was a great example of us beginning to achieve one of the ends statements that Bill Gorski introduced in his recent Chairman’s message (i.e., Knowledge Development: Government agencies and universities engage with NFPA to develop fundamental knowledge of fluid power and educate the next generation of scientific and engineering leaders in the field).

It’s happening at Vanderbilt and at many other universities.

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