West Fargo inventor Ernie Brookins has produced a hydraulic transmission that can power vehicles without the engine running full time.

Now he's looking for investors willing to fund full-scale production of his prototype.

Brookins believes his invention could potentially save drivers 50 percent in fuel costs.

Here's how it works:

Brookins' hybrid drive system captures, compresses, and stores "wasted" drive-train energy produced when a vehicle's engine is running.

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The compressed air pushes hydraulic fluid through a piston-driven torque converter capable of propelling a vehicle at highway speeds without the engine running, he says.

Once fully developed, an embedded computer system will automatically switch the vehicle's power source back and forth from engine to hybrid drive transmission. "The engine will have to run about 50 percent of the time," Brookins said.

"Other hybrids today can't drive with the engine turned off," he said.

A recent dynamometer test showed a prototype mounted on a Ford Explorer SportTrac SUV capable of reaching 60 mph road speeds, he said.

"If we went out on the road, I could maintain 60 miles per hour with the engine turned off," Brookins said.

"We can put it on anything. This is designed for a grain truck hauling 40,000 pounds," he said, while displaying a similar prototype in his West Fargo shop.

"We're going to target vehicles using millions of gallons of gas."

Likely targets are school buses, delivery trucks, semis, postal vehicles, even train locomotives: "Anything that uses gas or diesel (fuel) for power," Brookins said.

The invention can "make an immediate impact on the fuel crisis."

Brookins, who has been working on the project for four years, readily invites visitors to take a ride in the SportTrac prototype.

"We're going to drive away without starting the engine," he said.

Brookins clicks a couple of toggle switches and away we go.

A set of gauges show how much stored energy is being used. When it's nearly depleted, Brookins restarts the engine, continues driving and once again stores compressed air.

Curtis Reule, a research engineer with Fargo-based Packet Digital LLC, is developing the embedded system that will eventually automate the system.

"We're going to interface all that stuff so you don't have to push buttons and switches," he said.

"You're looking at greater than 50 percent fuel savings. This is something that a lot of people are going to want," Reule said. "Anytime you brake, it's going to recapture lost energy. With a regular car, that goes out the exhaust pipe into waste."

Brookins said the invention can be available for commercial markets within six months of having investors and other funding sources that can provide the $250,000 needed to mass produce it.

"Basically, right now it's a dead project until we can get financing," he said.

To date he has received half of a $26,000 North Dakota Agricultural Products Utilization Commission grant and he has financed the remainder out of pocket.

"The guy is like a genius. What he is doing is pretty amazing," said Roger Johnson, North Dakota agriculture commissioner.

"It does seem to me like it's sort of a breakthrough invention," Johnson said. "His challenge is breaking into the industry. It's going to take a fair amount of capital. He needs someone to partner up and put some money into this."

Brookins said he can produce 10 to 15 units a day with three full-time employees.

He would eventually consider selling the business to any U.S. company that could produce 100,000 units per year.

"Then we could make an impact on the fuel crisis," he said. "The market is 1 million per year."

Brookins and his wife, Gail, have spent 45 years in the transmission business. He is known locally as a former race car driver and combine demolition derby promoter.

Brookins moved to Fargo from northern California in 1967 and opened A-Transmission City, with shops in Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D.

"We got out of that in the 1980s to go racing," he said.

Readers can reach Forum Business Editor Craig McEwen at (701) 241-5502