The Virginia Institute for Performance Engineering and Research, commonly known as VIPER, was conceived as a premier research and testing center that would attract and train those interested in developing breakthrough technologies in vehicle performance.

Until recently, VIPER’s clientele consisted primarily of the military, race teams and those connected with the automobile industry. That all changed recently when famed singer/songwriter Neil Young, with his LincVolt alternative energy team, booked the VIPER engine and drive-train lab at Virginia International Raceway to test the rocker’s 1959 Lincoln Continental ‘series hybrid’ vehicle.

“LincVolt,” the name given to Young’s two-and-a-half ton Lincoln Continental Mark IV convertible, was just one antique in a collection housed at the singer's Northern California compound. No more. The 19-foot-6-inch behemoth has undergone a transformation from a gas guzzler to an electric vehicle that gets more than 60 miles per gallon. The team is aiming for 100 miles per gallon, and believes that their new series-hybrid system for powering the car will someday help break America’s dependence on foreign oil.

The car has been entered in the Automotive X Prize, a competition for 100 mile per gallon vehicles. The team says they plan to showcase the car later this year in a qualifying race. According to Young, “We’re the biggest car, as far as I know. And if we aren’t the biggest car, we’ll pull a trailer. We just want to demonstrate what you can do.”

Expectations for the vehicle are high, as Young’s other LincVolt team members are famous in their own right – at least in alternative energy circles. Johnathan Goodwin and Uli Kruger share Young’s vision that roadside refueling can be eliminated through the use of a self-charging engine.

Goodwin was sought out by Young who saw him on MTV’s “Pimp My Ride.” The 38-year-old Goodwin, known as the “Motorhead Messiah,” has developed a reputation for modifying larger vehicles like Hummers and Jeep Wagoneers to be fuel efficient.

Goodwin’s mods, as they are called, get four times their normal mileage while burning low-emission renewable fuels grown in the United States, with the plus of doubled horsepower.

The other LincVolt team member is Uli Kruger, a German physicist now living in Australia. Kruger has spent decades researching techniques for blending fuels that don’t normally mix. One of Kruger’s systems, which Goodwin has adopted for the LincVolt, puts hydrogen into the air intake of a diesel engine, producing emissions-reducing and mileage-boosting effects.

The diesel combustion ignites the hydrogen, which burns clean and produces water as the only byproduct. It also displaces up to 50 percent of the diesel needed to fuel the car, which doubles the mileage and cuts emissions by at least half. Another positive outcome is that the water by-product from the hydrogen combustion cools down the engine, so the diesel combustion generates fewer harmful emissions.

To generate hydrogen, LincVolt uses a water-cooled electrical control box to manage the electrical demands. The single-rotor engine drives a 75 kiloWatt UQM electric motor running in reverse, generating power to charge the batteries as needed. The engine is being tested to run on multiple fuel sources, with gasoline, CNG, plus “water gas” -- hydrogen produced via electrolysis from water carried on board.

Steve Southward, director of VIPER, was initially puzzled when a film company contacted him about a movie being made about Neil Young. Says Southward, “When a representative of Shakey Pictures called and said that they were making a movie with Neil Young, I was confused at how this might be related to VIPER Service and vehicle testing. As they explained more about Neil Young’s dream project to turn a 1959 Lincoln Continental into a green automobile, I knew this was a perfect fit with the research and testing services offered at VIPER. The 2.5 ton, 19.5 foot automobile showed up the next day at the VIPER Chassis Dyno facility with a team of creative engineers, video production staff, and Neil himself. It was an absolute treat to have the legendary Neil Young and his team at our facility, but also to be able to support the mission of this challenging but very exciting project.”

VIPER was formed in 2004 through a partnership between Virginia Tech's College of Engineering and the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) with support from various federal, state, and local funding sources. Other strategic partners such as Old Dominion University, state and local government entities, and private companies joined the effort to create a national center for ground vehicle performance research and engineering.

VIPER has two Virginia International Raceway locations – the Virginia-Tech affiliated Ace Drive location and the North Paddock engine and drive train facility, operated by Old Dominion University. Virginia Tech provides faculty, graduate students, intellectual property, and other critical resources to VIPER and operates the Advanced Vehicle Dynamics Laboratory and Center for Vehicle Systems and Safety.

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This article was written by Deborah Morehead.