NC State Students Turning a Saturn SUV Green
About 25 NC State students are participating in EcoCAR: The Next Challenge, a three-year competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, General Motors and Argonne National Laboratory. The team is one of 16 from universities around the country that are working to convert a 2009 Saturn VUE into an electric, hybrid or fuel-cell vehicle. The students completed their design the first year and will now begin transforming the VUE, which they received in August. NC State magazine intern Deborah Neffa spoke with the team’s outreach leader Erik Schettig ’08 about the project.
How did the first year go?
Considering this is the first time NC State is participating in the competition, [it] went very well. We were able to keep up with other universities that have participated in the competition for many years and have bigger teams—upwards of 40 or more people. . . .
Who’s on the team?
It’s a mix of undergraduates and graduate students from all departments throughout the university. The faculty adviser also gives some kind of assignment through the mechanical and aerospace engineering department so students can participate on the team for a few months to get credit. Even people who have already graduated and are working can become involved. . . . I am an education [graduate student] and have nothing to do with the engineering aspects, but we have people from [all over campus] working together. It really helps better the product.
What’s special about your vehicle?
I’d have to say that our vehicle is closer to what the public will be seeing in EREVs (extended range electric vehicles). [It has] a B20 biodiesel engine (which runs on a mixture that is 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel), and it has an electrical aspect for the battery. People will be seeing this more in hybrids.
What challenges has the team encountered?
One of the technical issues the team has been dealing with is trying to figure out which battery is the best to use. It’s difficult to pick the best one for a vehicle since there are so many different cooling methods and different batteries with different efficiencies.
What are you looking to do in year two?
On the outreach side, we’re hoping to better our Web site and get more media outreach. On the technical side, we’re hoping to better implement a computer system we’ve used to test the model of the vehicle. We’re hoping to better implement it into a simulation so that when we put it into the vehicle we don’t have many problems. We also hope to finalize the battery decision. We were awarded a top line engine that’s a new development, so we want to replace the current engine with the new one. We’re also going to be putting an electric motor in there. Each university is required to write reports and provide certain information about the project, and based on the scores you get on the reports, the schools receive small awards like the engine. The awards come from the various [companies] involved in the competition like GM.
You visit K-12 schools in the Raleigh area to promote the project. What do you talk to students about?
We’re promoting alternative-transportation technologies and sustainable technologies. It’s also to help teachers implement alternative-living styles into the schools and the curricula. The school visits also help us practice our presentations and help us pass on information to students about what they might want to study in school when they’re older. Our efforts are also to show that universities are doing things with the public and with companies to promote better, sustainable technology.
Inside the EcoCar
A) Compared to a gasoline combustion engine, which is, at most, 30 percent efficient, the EcoCAR’s diesel ENGINE GENERATOR is designed to be nearly 90 percent efficient. The car’s 1.3-liter engine is also more eco-friendly than the 2.4-liter engine that’s standard in the VUE.
B) With a front-wheel drive unit and with greater torque at lower speeds, THE ELECTRIC MOTOR drives the wheels. It can provide the power of a regular vehicle even though it has a no-transmission compact electrical powertrain, which transmits power from the engine to the axle.
C) The LITHIUM ION BATTERY has a water-cooling system that keeps it from overheating while enabling the car to accelerate aggressively. “You can choose to drive it all electrically,” says Ali Seyam ’09, a graduate student and a team leader. The total energy storage in the system is about 20 kWh, nearly twice that of the Chevrolet Volt’s lithium-ion battery.
(Top: Photograph courtesy of the EcoCAR Challenge; Bottom: Illustration by Ali Seyam ’09)