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automotive challenges I’d like to see

November 23, 2007

During my final year in university, I was a member of the University of Waterloo’s Propane Vehicle Challenge team. This was the second year for the Propane Vehicle Challenge, but the first year for the pickup truck category. The Challenge: convert a pickup truck to 100% propane fuel use, focusing on emissions, fuel economy, range, and driveablility. Our team received a Dodge Dakota V8 and competed against teams from across North America. It was a great experience, especially as we won the top prize, beating out the previous year’s champions despite being one of the least-funded teams competing.

The glow of past victory aside, I find myself asking, “Why did we bother?” Nothing any of the teams did was extraordinary technically. All teams used off-the-shelf propane fuelling systems, with only the fuel delivery side being customized by each team. The fuel tank shape was novel, but everything else about it was entirely standard. Essentially, the challenge came down to how we tuned our vehicles. Nothing any one team did could not have been accomplished by any other company or organization involved in the challenge. So what was the point of it all?

In the years after my involvement, competition shifted from propane to ethanol, and then to “Challenge X” focusing on hydrogen power. Currently it seems that automotive challenges have taken a back seat to other recreational transportation challenges, such as the “Clean Snowmobile Challenge” that started fairly recently. Quite frankly I see challenges based on recreational vehicles as being somewhat technologically masturbatory – yes, they’re fun and have a “cool” factor, but what does it really accomplish? It’s sustainable transportation, but it targets a very small slice of the whole transportation pie.

Propane, natural gas, ethanol, hydrogen, electric… it’s all been done before. Private companies, student teams, and back-yard mechanics have been doing this stuff for decades. Heck, taxis have been running on propane forever. We don’t need any more proof-of-concept vehicles – we know we can power vehicles on pretty much any fuel source, providing you put enough effort into converting the vehicle. So why are these student teams being lead over ground already covered? Why are these challenge sponsors focusing on fuels whose only challenges, quite frankly, are either market acceptance or lack of infrastructure?

Were I to organize a new vehicle engineering challenge, I’d like to see student teams break new(er) ground with the following challenges:

1) Straight Bio-Oil Challenge

Some people run their diesels on straight vegetable oil, but only after fuel system modifications. There is debate about whether any currently mass-produced diesel fuel system can handle the different properties of vegetable oil (namely much higher viscosity). Why not develop a fuel system that is designed from the outset to run on bio-oil? What is bio-oil? Oil derived from any biological source, either vegetable or animal. Why not run on waste beef tallow, if it’s possible?

This would be, in my opinion, the most useful challenge by far. Making a diesel run reliably on straight vegetable oil would allow sidestepping turning vegetable oil into biodiesel, a process which currently requires toxic and dangerous chemicals, and increases the embodied energy of the fuel, decreasing its well-to-wheels efficiency.

The trick to this challenge will be in fairly weighing what fuel is used. Running virgin vegetable oil will be significantly less technically challenging that running a mixture of used vegetable oils and animal fats. The latter would have to address issues of oil cleanliness and contamination (water, chunks of fries, etc.) to ensure powertrain longevity. The fact that using used oils amounts to recycling a resource should also be accounted for. Cold soak testing will be key in any case, to make sure teams design for bio-oil’s low-temperature gelling (or solidifying) properties.

2) Producer Gas Challenge

During World War II, vehicles were converted to run off of a gas mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide called producer gas, or wood gas. Dump in a load of wood or wood chips, fire it up, and off you go. Of course, such conversions would instantly gum up today’s high-technology engines… or would they?

This challenge would be to build a safe producer gas reactor, and then mate it up to a suitable modern engine. This challenge would be rated based driveability, start-up time, emissions, fuel economy, and on how many different fuel inputs the vehicle could handle. Dry hardwood wood chips? OK, I guess. Agricultural wastes like straw and corn cobs? Great! Plastic medial waste or scrap tires? Outstanding!… so long as the emissions are too.

3) Steam Power Challenge

Somewhat similar to the Producer Gas Challenge, convert a vehicle to run on closed-loop steam power, powered by an exernal combustion unit. No, scratch that… powered by an external POWER unit; use combustion, stored energy, fission, or whatever. Points for efficiency, fuel economy, emissions, and diversity and sustainability of fuels the unit can use.

4) Gen Set Challenge

Take any of the above three challenges, and apply it to a generator. If we can have sustainable mobile powertrains, stationary ones should allow for even more creativity and flexibility, right?

The vehicles I would like to see be converted for any of these challenges would be one of the following:

  • Class A transport truck
  • Class D truck (dump truck, heavy delivery truck, etc.)
  • coach or city bus
  • any off-highway machine (excavator, backhoe, bulldozer, etc.)

These are the vehicles that use serious amounts of fuel and are operated orders of magnitude more than any family passenger vehicle. An SUV driven 20 000 km a year uses a fractin of the fuel that a transport truck logging a million kilometres a year does. Even near-stationary equipment like backhoes and excavators, while not moving much, run flat-out 8 hours a day (and sometimes many, many more), consuming loads of fuel too.

Unfortunately, with big vehicles come big expense, and it would be very unlikely that any university engineering team would have the space, infrastructure, or correct class of driver’s license to deal with any of those vehicles. So, the closest thing should be used instead:

  • any heavy-duty vehicle with a diesel engine (pickup truck, panel van)
  • skid steer loader
  • small agricultural tractor

These vehicles would have a similar use pattern as the vehicles these challenges would ideally be applied to, just in a physically smaller (and thereby less expensive) package.

One benefit to these challenge programs is the experience the students get. Without my involvement in the 1997 Propane Vehicle Challenge I would have never had the opportunity to work on a vehicle, help test it, or compete against other teams from across North America. With the above proposed vehicle challenges, students will get the same kind of experience, but will also get to break new ground, write academic papers, deal with intellectual property and licensing, and do something to advance the state of sustainable transportation.

The question is, how does one start a student engineering challenge? If you’re flush with cash like DARPA or the Ansari X-Prize foundation, you simply put up a huge cash reward to the first team that can meet your target goal. If you’re a bit more modest with your finances, you find industry partners to sponsor the event, as the Propane Vehicle Challenge did with the U.S. Department of Energy, Chrysler, and ICG Propane. Of course, such industry partners would only be interested in such a venture if it promotes their industry and/or product. That may be tricky for the above challenges. No trickier than finding a wealthy backer, I suppose, but still not a trivial task.

One other way would be to grow a challenge as a grassroots event. Instead of luring teams to the competition with prize money, lure the sponsors to the competition with teams. All it would take is a dozen teams from across North America to opt to take up one of these challenges, and we’d have a viable competition. Sponsors would be much easier to get with existing teams with proposals and a draft set of competition guidelines than with only a good idea. So, who’s up for it? Are you an engineering student looking for a competition that better addresses sustainable transportation? Are you a gearhead that likes playing with alternative fuels? Are you running a racing team or service shop and looking to branch out into something bigger? Let’s see what we can start.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2008 10:03 pm

    Approximately 270 million cars and trucks were sold worldwide in 2007 and analysts expect that figure to more than triple in the next few years due to demand in China and other growing economies in Asia. Oil fed automobiles are on the way out, not only due to geo-political issues, but due to the exhaustion, rationing and dwindling availability of affodable crude oil.

    As many auto manufacturers readily accept the demand for electrical powered vehicles a new crisis with added coal consumption and resulting affects on the environment. Nuclear power is readily produced, however the byproducts are deadly as a large nuclear reactor produces 3 cubic metres (roughly 30 tons) of spent fuel each year. We have no place to put the most dangerous fuel byproducts known to man (uranium, plutonium, and curium – “actinides”) after the first five years of added electrical production. Any way we look at it, electrical powered cars are far worst for the environment after just five years, than any vehicle that has come out of Detroit could possibly have been in the past century.

  2. June 2, 2008 6:49 pm

    Ufa says : I absolutely agree with this !

  3. February 28, 2009 1:11 pm

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