UB alum David Blekhman inspires students to develop a passion for clean energy

Cal State LA team wins Clean Air Education and Outreach Award for helping to educate the public about energy efficient vehicles

Group photo of the Cal State LA team with the EcoCAR 3.

UB alumnus David Blekhman led a team of Cal State LA students in the design of a plug-in hybrid police vehicle for the EcoCAR 3 challenge. The team earned the Clean Air Education and Outreach Award in the competition.

by Rebecca Rudell

Published February 25, 2019

While teaching a course on energy systems at UB, David Blekhman (PhD ’02, mechanical engineering) discovered his love for clean energy technology, in particular fuel cell technology. “It was a new and exciting topic at the time,” he says.

“I am very appreciative of the guidance I received from my UB advisors, and my time at UB was a major stepping stone in my career.”
David Blekhman, UB mechanical engineering alumnus and professor of technology
California State University, Los Angeles

After earning his PhD, he brought his knowledge of and enthusiasm for clean energy to Grand Valley State University in Michigan, where he served for five years as an assistant professor in the school of engineering. While there, Blekhman read articles about EcoCAR, the premier collegiate automotive engineering competition in North America, and thought about how he’d love to work for a school that participated in the event.

In 2007, Blekhman made the move out west to teach at California State University, Los Angeles, and in 2011, his wish came true when he became lead advisor for EcoCAR 2. “The dean came into my office and handed me the paperwork and said, ‘See if you can get us in,’” says Blekhman, a professor of technology in the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology. “I thought, wow, this is the one I’ve always dreamed about!”

The EcoCAR competition consists of stripping a Chevrolet Camaro down to its frame and reengineering it with the latest in energy-efficient technology. For EcoCAR 3, Blekhman and his team of more than 150 students (over the four-year timeframe) reworked their 2016 Camaro into a plug-in hybrid police vehicle, inspired by California governor Jerry Brown’s mandate to add more clean vehicles to the state’s fleets, including police cars, by 2020.

Blekhman explains that their renovated vehicle offers energy-saving benefits in three different modes:

  • Stakeout mode – When the officer is parked and monitoring the speed of passing motorists, the air conditioning and equipment run via battery pack, so the engine can be shut off.
  • Patrol mode – If powered by an engine, cruising slowly through the city is inefficient, so during this mode, the car is in full electric mode and releases no emissions.
  • Pursuit mode – Now, the vehicle can take advantage of both its electric engine and its motor, optimizing energy consumption, even during high-speed chases.
Blekhman is working on the engine of the EcoCAR 3.

David Blekhman works on the battery pack as part of reengineering a Chevrolet Camaro with the latest in energy-efficient technology for the EcoCAR 3 challenge.

“Plug-in vehicles have several benefits for police applications,” he continues. “The only drawback is that the Camaro coupe is not the best choice for transporting people who have been arrested.”

His team’s EcoCAR 3 vehicle won the 2018 Clean Air Education and Outreach Award from the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) for playing a part in educating the public – including thousands of high school students – about energy efficient vehicles. Another benefit of participating in the event, Blekhman says, is that many of his students now have jobs at General Motors and other automotive companies.

As a side note, Blekhman mentions that Wayne State University’s EcoCAR 3 team advisor was a fellow UB alum, Jerry Ku (PhD ’85, mechanical engineering). “Jerry and I became very close friends during EcoCAR 3 and our teams collaborated quite a bit because of our special UB connection,” he says.

Ku also served as Wayne State’s advisor in the EcoCAR 2 series, as did a third UB alum, Zuomin Dong (PhD ’89, mechanical engineering), who was advisor for the University of Victoria team. So out of 15 EcoCAR 2 teams, three of them had advisors hailing from UB.

“David was one of my best PhD students. The demands and high expectations of developing his dissertation and working as a teaching assistant gave him the opportunity to learn critical thinking and to push himself to higher levels of achievement. I believe that his demonstrated excellence at these experiences helped him succeed; both in general, and as the lead in the EcoCAR 3 challenge,” says Joseph Mollendorf, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in UB’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

“I am very appreciative of the guidance I received from my UB advisors, and my time at UB was a major stepping stone in my career,” added Blekhman.

EcoCAR is just one of many clean energy projects Blekhman is involved with at Cal State LA. When he first arrived at the university, he was charged with building a hydrogen station suggested by his predecessor. Opened in 2014, the station was the first in the world to sell hydrogen by the kilogram rather than through private contracts, making it much easier for retail customers to purchase the fuel, and ensuring quicker adoption of fuel cell cars.

He also led the installation of a photovoltaic system with 77 solar panels in 2011; was involved with establishing the on-campus shared mobility program utilizing fuel cell vehicles in 2018; and is currently testing LiDAR (a laser radar that uses pulses of light to measure the distance to or speed of an object, and is one of the major sensors in autonomous vehicles) with his students.

His next major objective looks forward nearly a decade – to the 2028 Olympic Games to be held in Los Angeles – and includes further research and development that would help bring autonomous transportation to the city for this major event.

Blekhman was also recently selected as the 2019-20 Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Alternative Energy Technology, at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

Blekhman’s dissertation, “A Theoretical and Experimental Study of High-Temperature Compressive Gas Heating” (2002), was the basis of three archival, peer-reviewed publications and two international conference presentations. It also laid groundwork for a 2012 U.S. Patent 8,142,716, “Method of Altering a Fluid-Borne Contaminant,” which was licensed to Buffalo BioBlower as a method of air purification.