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Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology opens alt-fuel lab

Posted by Bill Griffith  October 6, 2011 05:23 PM

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Sophomores Tom Musa, left, of Allston, and Alex Wessling, of Weymouth, work in the school's new alternative fuels lab. (BFIT)

The good news is that today's hybrids and alternative-fuel vehicles are proving to be quite reliable. But they'll still require repairs to their unique electro-mechanical systems. And as cities and fleets go green, there's going to be a need for educated, high-tech repair specialists.

Enter Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston's South End, an institution that offers the nation's oldest automotive repair program and now is the first college in the northeast to offer an associate's degree with a specialization in alternative fuel vehicles.

Unfortunately, there was a downside to that claim: the school's auto lab was seriously outdated.

No longer. In September, the school formally opened its Liberty Mutual Alternative Fuels Lab, giving the 100-plus students in the automotive program a big competitive edge in learning how to repair and maintain hybrid, electric, and alternative-fueled vehicles.

"This is exactly the program I was looking for," said Tom Musa, of Allston. "I'm in the four-year program, and my goal is to be a service manager at a top dealership."

Students proudly showed the nine new lifts and two laser-equipped alignment racks that line the gleaming shop area along with work areas and tire machines. On one lift, a Honda Civic Hybrid was partially disassembled, the guts of its electric motor removed and the battery pack and inverter exposed behind the rear seat.

On another, a Prius had its hood up with the all-important "inverter," which converts AC current to DC, removed. In one corner is a 1980 vintage all-electric Comuta-Car. "It's a wiring nightmare, but our instructors say we're getting new batteries for it and will get it running again," said Musa.

The times and jobs have changed, but its still exactly what Ben Franklin envisioned back in 1790 when he left £1,000 ($4,000 at the time) to both Boston and Philadelphia to train apprentices based on his observation that "good apprentices are likely to make good citizens." The school was founded in 1908 under provisions in Franklin's will.

Liberty Mutual, the school's South End neighbor and long-time supporter, funded the lab with a $250,000 grant with additional funding coming from the National Science Foundation and another half-dozen benefactors.

BFIT offers three programs in automotive technology — a certificate, an associate degree, and a bachelor degree in automotive management in what it calls its "2 + 2" track. And it's working: BFIT's graduation rate is three times the average for two-year colleges in Massachusetts.

Like auto techs everywhere, students must have their own tools. "Snap-On and other companies give us a big discount on tools," said Alex Wessling, of Weymouth, who wants to open his own repair facility.

One of the most important "tools" for hybrid service is a pair of high-voltage gloves.

"You see those orange high-voltage wires and you make sure the power is off before starting to work," said Musa. The gloves actually are two-part protection, an inner rubber glove and outside normal-looking work glove.

"They're supposed to give you protection up to 1,000 volts," said Wessling, "but you wouldn't want to test that."

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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