Missouri University of Science and Technology works to get its fuel-cell car ready for the road. (Jim Motavalli photo)
YUMA, ARIZONA-David Koch experienced both ecstasy and panic on the same day. The graduate student is a member of Penn State's EcoCar team, which is competing with 15 other collegiate teams to build the cleanest, most consumer-friendly vehicle on the road. The competition is helping create career goals for hundreds of engineering students, and providing innovative employees for the auto skunkworks of the future. At many mechanical and electrical engineering departments, clean cars are where the action is.
The worst part of the day for Koch was when he dropped a washer into the power inverter of his team's biodiesel-fueled extended-range electric vehicle. Like the Chevrolet Volt, it uses its small internal-combustion engine (in this case a 1.3-liter diesel from the European Opel Corsa) not to turn the wheels but to power a 75-kilowatt generator to provide electricity for the 120-kilowatt motors. That washer could have caused a lot of mischief, so work ground to a halt for several hours as the team fished around in a two-inch by two-inch hole. They found it.
Despite that delay, Penn State passed its safety inspection with only minor issues and was running in first place as its vehicle (a Vue SUV from defunct Saturn, like all the others) made its way through a day of rigorous tests. That was the ecstasy part. "We're way ahead of everybody, and it's been a fun journey," said Koch, belying the early mornings an late nights the team has been putting in, both in Yuma and back at Penn State. Many are putting in 40-hour weeks on the cars, despite many other commitments.
The teams are not, as one might expect, all-male bastions. It was heartening to see that perhaps 10 percent of the competitors (mostly grad students but some undergrads) were women, and that some of them were standouts among their peers.
The Penn State car, despite its radical layout, looked ready for consumer driveways. It gets an estimated 47 miles per gallon, travels 25 miles in battery mode and then another 225 miles when the generator kicks in. You wouldn't experience range anxiety. "It's very quiet on the road and there's a lot of power right off the bat," said David Fecek, another grad student and co-team leader.
Students were ecstatic when they got their cars out of the garage and into the hands of GM's test engineers. Here's a video view from the Mississippi State team:
The University of Ontario was offering the only pure battery electric in the competition, and it had a relatively radical solution, too-a huge 80-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack from Kokam. According to team leader Mike Maduro, it will have-or at least it has on paper-a range of about 240 miles. That's more than double that of the Nissan Leaf, a battery car that will be on the market (with a much smaller battery pack) by the end of the year.
Tesla Motors, which just announced that it will build its Model S sedan in the now-vacant NUMMI plant in Fremont, California that had been operated jointly by General Motors and Toyota, has a major challenge with that car. To get 300 miles of range from the Model S, which is much bigger and heavier than its current Roadster, it will need a really big battery pack, bigger than any currently commercialized. Maybe Tesla will want to look at the U of Ontario students who have real-world experience shoehorning a humungous battery into a small space.
Andrew Meintz, a Ph.D candidate in electrical engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology (another fuel-cell car), said he's torn in his future career-academia or the car industry. Either way, he'll definitely have a role in building the car of the future.
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