by Bradford Mackay
Baby boomers and Gen-Xers are crazy about big, gas-guzzling trucks. In fact, there are just about as many new trucks and sports utility vehicles (SUVs) on North American roads now as there are conventional passenger cars. That's something of a setback for the hard-won emissions standards for passenger cars.
However, the automobile industry is turning its attention to fuel efficiency in trucks, and a group of Concordia engineering students are set to play an integral role.
A team of Mechanical Engineering students led by faculty advisor Henry Hong and team leader Sam Graceffa are the only Canadians among 15 North American universities chosen to help design a new vehicle powered by fuels other than gas.
The FutureTruck Challenge, launched by the United States government and auto manufacturers, is looking to students for fresh approaches to an old problem: gas emissions and their destructive effects on the environment.
The competition is the product of a 1993 partnership between the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) and the U.S.'s big three car companies to jointly develop environmentally conscious vehicles. Each year since, thousands of dollars in financing and more than 100 new vehicles have been donated to participating universities.
The task facing the Concordia team is to strip a 2000 model Chevrolet Suburban and re-build it using an alternative fuel system, taking care to maintain the power and amenities that consumers demand. The result is commonly referred to as a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV), and is widely considered to be the vehicle of the future.
The Concordia team represents the only Canadian university picked for the competition, thanks in part to the university's involvement in the previous FutureCar Challenges.
The hours the students devote to the project are considered extra-curricular by the department, so it remains purely a side project, but it does offer them an opportunity not found in the traditional classroom.
"In the lab, it's all about following the procedures, connecting the dots," explained Graceffa in his workshop in the Henry F. Hall Building. "With this, you get to come up with your own idea and see it through."
These ideas include an engine that allows the vehicle to be powered by electricity for startup and initial acceleration. As most fuel is consumed during the period between 0 and 15 kilometres an hour, Dr. Hong explained, this system alone will greatly reduce emissions.
A refined form of cleaner-burning natural gas called dimethyl-ether (DME) will power the vehicle at higher speeds, and a new fuel injector designed by Dr. Hong will help regulate the entire process.
Graceffa explained that they also are toying with adding safety features that will awaken drivers who doze off at the wheel.
Ideally, the new HEV will have up to three times the current fuel economy, while maintaining safety and performance. On a practical level, this means that you could drive from Halifax to Vancouver, and only stop to refuel twice.
The Suburban, a prime example of the wildly popular SUV, poses a unique challenge for the students. SUV owners expect a higher level of performance from their vehicles, which includes a heavy towing capacity and reliability, and usually comes at the cost of lower fuel efficiency and increased emissions.
Graceffa thinks balancing these consumer demands with environmental concerns will be the real challenge for future car makers.
The team has eight months, "a very short time," according to Hong, to come up with a working model to be tested and judged next June in the Mesa, Arizona, desert. Winners will share in the total $40,000 (U.S.) offered in prize money.
The team received their main funding from the USDOE and General Motors, and additional support from Natural Resources Canada, the National Science Foundation, and the Aluminum Association.Whoosh - now that's refreshing
Concordia's FutureTruck team displayed their new vehicle in the atrium of the J.W. McConnell Building at Open House last week. From the left are team member Eric Lambert, who is responsible for the electrical and computer group, team captain Sam Graceffa, faculty advisor Professor Henry Hong and Dean nabil Esmail.