The Art of Engineering

Jared Farnsworth’s two-headed approach to finding the future of fuel cells

September 07, 2016
Cold Comfort -- Jared Farnsworth's work on fuel cell technology has taken him to some far off places, like this cold-testing trip in the northern territories of Canada.  
Toyota’s latest breakthrough in designing hydrogen fuel cell technology has roots in the middle of America.
 
Let’s go back to the early 1990s—to a sprawling family farm somewhere in eastern Colorado, and the well isn’t working.
 
It’s an issue, but it’s also a perfect opportunity to show young Jared Farnsworth the real-world importance of problem solving. “Go down there and fix it,” his grandfather said. “I’ll be back later.”
 
Farnsworth doesn’t know a thing about wells. But he can visualize. He can look at the system and imagine how it might work. Trial and error, back then more of an instinct than a trusted method, guides him. So he examines the pulley system. Then the bucket. Then the wires.
 
He figures out the system, and finds the answer to questions he never knew existed.
 
And when his grandfather comes back a few hours later, the well is working just fine.
 
Trial and Error -- Farnsworth consults his TMC colleagues during exteme cold testing.

 
Simple Words, Complex Questions
 
Last month in his office in Sacramento, where it’s just Farnsworth and an administrative assistant, he fielded a phone interview, trying to give complex answers with simple words. A few times he slips into engineer speak and drifts off into a different language altogether.
 
He has given dozens of interviews as part of his job as a senior engineer on Toyota’s Fuel Cell team. He has to explain his team’s breakthroughs in hydrogen fuel cell technology, while trying to make it understandable for those of us who aren’t scientific geniuses. And so, with that kind of tightrope to walk, he can be forgiven for occasionally dropping a phrase like “interpolation of homotopic operating states.”
 
But no matter what language he’s speaking, the one thing that shines through at all times is his enthusiasm for his work.
 
Farnsworth and his team are developing math- and physics-based models used to create control strategies and software that will aid in the development of the next generation of Toyota fuel cell vehicles.
 
So what does that mean?
 
Normally, any system designed for a vehicle has to be tested on a prototype of the component. But with fuel cell technology, that prototype doesn’t exist yet because the technology itself doesn’t exist yet. So Farnsworth and his team worked with TMC to design a computer model of the fuel cell system which can handle those tests over and over again—even before a prototype exists.
 
“Say you’re working with engines,” Farnsworth says, setting up an example. “We’ve had 100 years of experience working with engines. In this case, we don’t have that. So what we’re doing is implementing mathematical models of the system before the hardware ever exists.”
 
Easy enough, right? Let’s hear that again in engineer speak.
 
“So we’ll take a specification for a system and we’ll build these acausal physics-based models of the system,” Farnsworth says. “That way we can confirm how we’re designing the car before anything ever exists. We can simulate how the car would run and how the different components of the system would work together. That’s valuable because very early on we can get a really high-quality understanding of how the system will work even before we get a component or get a car.”
 
It’s a problem that doesn’t have an answer – yet. But Farnsworth thrives in situations of trial and error, of figuring out the unknown and gradually understanding what does and doesn’t work. And soon, just like that well in Colorado, he’ll figure out the answer.
 
Team Effort -- Farnsworth (back center) and the fuel cell team are helping move technology forward at a historic pace. 

 
The Key
 
But what is Jared Farnsworth’s story? As a Toyota engineer, he’s just one of thousands of mathematical geniuses moving technology forward at a historic pace. As part of the fuel cell team, he’s one of a few dozen adventurers testing the limits of a largely unknown energy source.
 
Farnsworth doesn’t subscribe to the idea that engineers have to be straight-line, right-brained thinkers. In fact, if he were, he wouldn’t be able to work on fuel cell. Because as much as new technology is beholden to infallible math, it also takes a certain creativity to figure out the possibilities.
 
“You can’t just take a textbook and follow a set of procedures with this,” Farnsworth says. “In college, I hated following things step-by-step. But you need to learn that because, without it, you don’t have a foundation. But what I really liked was actual projects, solving problems and working on things.
 
“But it’s a balance,” he says. “You need that foundation of the math and physics. There are no gray areas there. But those are just tools that you apply to problems. They don’t tell you how to solve a problem. That takes creativity.”
 
Though he spent summers working on that farm in Colorado, Farnsworth lived with his parents in Nebraska during the school year. His parents, Mark and Sheryl, influenced him in different ways. He gets his knack for logic and numbers from his father, who was a general manager for an electric company. But the creativity he uses to solve problems? That comes from his mother and grandmother, both professional artists.
 
And those two parts of his brain work together: one side envisioning the future, the other finding ways to make that future a reality.
 
“You have to visualize what you think the system will do,” Farnsworth says. “Then you can start approaching how to solve the problem from different angles until you come up with a solution. Then you have a framework of how to approach your problem. The next step is to figure out the math and the physics to make it happen.”
 
If it all seems sort of abstract at this point, it’s because so many of the problems Farnsworth is solving weren’t problems a little while ago. “As technology progresses, we have to find creative ways to implement it,” he says.
 
But that enthusiasm shines through, as he and his team move toward a realistic fuel cell future.
 
“I’ve been able to actually witness the true benefits of this technology,” he says. “You can have zero-emission electric cars. It’s scalable from a sedan to a heavy duty bus, and you can have a significant decrease in greenhouse gases and there’s a path toward sustainable clean fuel. So in the end, this is a societal-changing technology that has potential for a huge impact in the future. And why wouldn’t you want to try to work on something like that?”
 
By Dan Nied
 
 

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