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Students aim to make 'greener' car

Posted: 01 Mar 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:chevrolet? equinoxes? engineer? vehicle? design tool?

Seventeen teams of engineering students are about to take possession of 2005-model Chevrolet Equinoxes, part of a three-year competition to reengineer the vehicles so as to reduce fuel consumption and noxious emissions. About 100 of the young engineers came to Austin early this month for several days of training on design tools donated by freescale semiconductor Inc. and national instruments Corp., both based here.

Ed Wall, a U.S. Department of Energy official in charge of the so-called Challenge X competition, said about 62 million vehicles of all types are manufactured worldwide each year. "There will be a lot more pollution if we develop traditional vehicles," Wall said at a kickoff meeting at a Freescale facility.

The teams, from 17 North American universities, are expected to convert the Equinoxes-a "crossover" car with attributes of a sport utility vehicle-to accept alternative fuels, including alcohols such as ethanol and methanol; compressed natural gas, a form of natural gas under high pressure; electricity stored in batteries for use by electric motors; hydrogen; liquefied natural gas; liquefied petroleum gas, also known as propane; liquids made from coal; or biodiesel, made from plant oils, animal fats or agricultural by-products and often blended with conventional diesel fuel. Besides improving fuel efficiency, the converted Equinox cars are expected to meet consumer expectations for performance, Wall added.

Alternative fuels have a mixed history in the United States, according to participants at a one-day workshop on the future of "sustainable mobility" that involved the student engineers.

In the 1990s General Motors developed a vehicle that accepted natural gas, at a conversion cost of about $4,000 per vehicle, but "not many people showed up," said Ron Mathews, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Minnesota energy legislation mandates that at least 2 percent of fuel consumption be in the form of alternative fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel blends. Elsewhere, the Texas Department of Transportation has been operating fleets in San Antonio and Houston that operate on ethanol. But the fuel must be trucked in at much higher costs than gasoline, which is shipping in pipelines.

Participants at the workshop challenged the use of ethanol on the grounds that much of it comes from corn, which is grown with agricultural techniques that consume large amounts of petroleum in fuel and synthetic fertilizers. An effort is under way to create ethanol from a wider variety of plant forms than corn, participants at the workshop said.

The breakthrough Toyota Prius and Honda hybrid cars-with gasoline engines complemented by an electric motor-have been a commercial success. Environmentally conscious drivers here are waiting a year or more to take possession of a Prius.

Some 270 Austin businesses receive 100 percent of their energy from the city's Green Choice energy program, which encourages the use of renewable energy sources. Mayor Will Wynn, a Democrat, said the vast majority of Austin's "green" energy comes from wind farms operated in west Texas.

"The challenge is that wind blows the most at night, but most of the energy usage is during the day," said Wynn, who suggested to the Challenge X students that they consider developing battery-driven cars that could be plugged into the energy grid at night. Wynn also said wind power could be used to produce hydrogen fuel at night that could "provide a combination solution to our energy and transportation problems."

Peter Schulmeyer, a strategist at Freescale's transportation and standard-products group, said development of more efficient autos "is a tremendous control effort" and the student engineering teams "need the most modern tools" to accomplish their tasks.

About 60 percent of the students in past competitions have gone to work for various automakers, and one goal is to train student engineers in the latest control technologies. "This essentially is a training ground for talent," said Wall.

To that end, Freescale and National Instruments are donating several million dollars' worth of tools, and will provide experienced engineers to train and advise the student engineers. Freescale will provide licenses for 360 seats of the Code Warrior development suite from its Metrowerks subsidiary, as well as development kits for the PowerPC-based MPC565 engine controller. National Instruments will provide each team with a training adviser and copies of its LabView graphical development environment and RapidIO FPGA-based prototyping tool. Also, both companies are providing cash support to the competition.

Besides the donated Equinox vehicles, GM will invest about $10,000 in each team in terms of parts and subsystems, and will provide controlled access to its intellectual property.

During the current academic year, the students are expected to do simulation and modeling, as well as subsystem development and testing, following guidelines established within GM's real-world Global Vehicle Development Process. For the next two academic years, the students will implement their ideas, aiming at the best total environmental impact, Wall said.

The 17 teams are expected to convene again in June at the General Motors proving ground in Milford, Mich., for the first round of judging. By the summer of 2007, the converted vehicles will be judged on towing capacity, acceleration, off-road performance, greenhouse-gas impact, total well-to-wheels fuel economy, emissions and consumer acceptability. Some $40,000 in cash prizes will be distributed to the winning teams.

Challenge X is the latest in a series of 45 vehicle-engineering competitions organized by the Department of Energy since 1987. In the 2003 Future Truck competition, in which students modified a 2002 Ford Explorer, the team from the University of Wisconsin at Madison achieved the equivalent of 21.2 miles per gallon, a 35 percent improvement over the control vehicle. A team from West Virginia University reduced greenhouse-gas emissions by 48 percent.

Ideas from the student teams have been incorporated into concept cars developed by Detroit. For example, an ethanol-distillation system developed at the University of Texas at Austin was patented by the school along with the Ford Motor Co.

The universities participating in the Challenge X competition are Michigan Technological University, Mississippi State University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, San Diego State University, Texas Technological University, University of Akron, University of California at Davis, University of Michigan, University of Tennessee, University of Texas at Austin, University of Tulsa, University of Waterloo, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and West Virginia University.

- David Lammers

EE Times

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