SAMMAMISH, Wash. - When many other college students were busy ogling varsity sports events or the inside of a toilet bowl after a long night at the campus pub, Sean Graham was busy watching the wind.
As a student at Penn State University a few years ago, Graham's idea started stewing when he was doing wind tests on heavy-duty truck models.
"I was thinking about ways we could improve fuel economy for trucks by improving aerodynamics," he said.
The idea would eventually turn the mechanical engineer into the founder and president of Freight Wing Limited, a Washington-based company specializing in trailer fairings.
Graham's original goal was to improve the aerodynamics of the tractor, but it soon became apparent that cab manufacturers were already doing everything in that area. So he turned to what he saw as the next the biggest opportunity for improvement - the trailer.
"Thinking about improving trailer aerodynamics is kind of the classic engineering conundrum because of the typical box shape trailer," Graham said.
"We actually started out by finding out what people had done in the past to streamline the trailer and found about 60 patents for different devices. It became clear to us that the reason that none of them had worked was because they interfered with the operation of the truck."
Having the device interfere is one of the many challenges that Graham faced during the initial design phase.
"In order to create a working product, it's not enough to just improve fuel economy and streamline the trailer. Obviously you can't create a product that is going to interfere with the truck's operation. It has to save enough fuel to make the effort worthwhile. It's kind of a demanding design."
But once Graham and his team got some ideas on the drawing board, they found that there was tremendous potential for aerodynamic fuel-saving design.
In 2003, after submitting their original design to the Inventions and Innovations program it received a grant worth $75,000. That was enough to start developing the product.
"Once we got the grant, our first priority was to get out there in the industry and start talking to fleet owners and drivers and maintenance managers to get some feedback from them to determine what it is we need to make," Graham said. "The obvious challenge and what a lot of people were asking us was, 'If you can save so much fuel by improving drag, then how come all the trailers out there don't already have something to do that?'"
Along with this industry skepticism came a seemingly obvious yet vital point to consider.
"The first thing that we found out was that fuel-saving products actually have to save fuel. That may seem like an obvious thing, however there's an incredible amount of skepticism in this industry right now because there have been so many fuel-saving products in the past that haven't worked.
So many have gotten burnt by trying these things out."
This brought Graham to a testing facility called the Transportation Research Centre (TRC) in Ohio. About $40,000 and some surprising discoveries later, the TRC completed testing Graham's three prototypes in the summer of 2004.
"All together, the three products demonstrated seven per cent fuel savings. Surprisingly to us, our best product, as far as fuel savings is concerned, is the Belly fairing product (attached at the bottom of trailer) which demonstrated four per cent fuel savings on its own."
In addition to the Belly fairing is the Gap fairing (attached at the front of the trailer) and Rear fairing (attached at the rear of the trailer). They demonstrated two and one per cent fuel savings to a total of seven per cent when used with the Belly fairing.
"Based on our initial research, the Rear fairing was the area of greatest potential. We were a little bit disappointed with the results of that," said Graham.
The original design for the Rear fairing had it attached to the cargo doors where it would retract or deploy when the doors were opened or closed. But in the end, the design proved flawed and caused damage at some yards during testing.
"It was actually a good thing that the (Rear fairing) was our worst performing product because it enabled us to focus on the Belly and Gap fairing products that require no operational changes and they're totally out of the way. In that way they're very easy. There's no moving parts, there's no maintenance concerns to worry about and that makes it a really easy product to deal with."
As the most successful fairing of the three, the Belly design has two main functions. First, it prevents wind, especially cross wind, from going underneath the truck and hitting the tandem axle, thus creating a huge amount of drag, by deflecting it and guiding the airflow down underneath the axle and around the side. Second, it traps the draft created by the tractor underneath the trailer and uses that energy to help pull the trailer along.
As of now, Freight Wing is in the process of exiting the testing phase and beginning to start marketing the product - with a little help from a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
"We're going to be using that funding to offer fleets cost-sharing projects where they can test out our fairings at half the current retail price. Fleets really want to test the product out on their own terms before making major purchase decision and outfitting the whole fleet. It's a really great way to give them an opportunity to do that at a minimal cost," said Graham.
According to him, these cost-sharing projects have already been implemented with three major fleets. The plan is to market the product towards high mileage fleets who will achieve the quickest return on investment (ROI).
"The more mileage you're putting on your trailers, the faster you're going to achieve a return on investment with a product," he said.
"At a retail price, you will achieve an ROI on about 100,000 miles on a trailer. At our 50 per cent off prices, it'll be about 50,000 miles. Right now we're trying to find the fleets that do a lot of mileage because those are the people we can really help out."
And with its sights set high, Freight Wing seems poised to soar smoothly into the marketplace.
"As far as we know, we are the only company out there that's specializing in aerodynamic attachments for semi-trailers," Graham said.
"The only thing we're concentrating on right now is perfecting these products for semi-trucks because that's where we feel the greatest potential is for really saving the industry fuel and consequently reducing environmental impact as well."