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For students, electric ‘sled’ is good, clean fun in the snow

October 31, 2007

Thanks to donations from Madison-based foundations and industry, a team of University of Wisconsin–Madison mechanical engineers will have the chance to develop an earth-friendly snowmobile that could facilitate scientific research in Antarctica and Greenland.

Christened the Silent BuckEV, the electric sled will compete in the 2008 Society of Automotive Engineering Zero-Emissions Electric Snowmobile Event, to be held on the Michigan Technological University campus in March.

UW-Madison team faculty adviser Glenn Bower, a faculty associate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, says the team appreciates the support from donors. This month, the Brittingham Foundation donated $13,000 and Polaris Industries supplied a snowmobile chassis, valued at $4,000. In May, the Evjue Foundation, the charitable arm of Madison newspaper The Capital Times, donated $13,000.

"The support has really made it possible to do the project," Bower says. "We couldn’t have undertaken the task without outside funds."

Though this is the UW–Madison team’s first year in the zero-emissions event, the team is familiar with snowmobiles. With its hybrid-electric snowmobile, UW–Madison has participated in the SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge since 2002 and claimed first place in 2004 and 2006.

The zero-emissions event is different because the snowmobiles are completely electric. SAE partnered with the National Science Foundation for the event on behalf of a request by VECO Polar Resources, NSF support contractor in Greenland.

The goal for zero-emissions teams is to help scientific research in Greenland and Antarctica. Air and snow samples can be contaminated by gas-powered vehicles used to get scientists to the coring spots. "Dog sleds are their only other option at this point," Bower says.

In the past, NSF has sponsored zero-emissions teams to travel to Summit Station, Greenland, says Bower.

The zero-emissions competitions began in 2004, but so far the entries haven’t been electrically safe or reliable overall, according to Bower. UW–Madison has worked on hybrid vehicles since 1993 through U.S. Department of Energy student challenges; as a result, says Bower, the students are familiar with the high-voltage motors and batteries used in the snowmobile events.

"We’re just applying knowledge we already have to a snowmobile chassis, and then we make it very reliable," Bower says.

He and team co-adviser, Ethan Brodsky, an assistant scientist in the departments of radiology and medical physics, contribute more than 20 years of leadership and experience in hybrid vehicles to the UW–Madison team.

Students also bring experience to the team and have their own goals for the zero-emissions project. Adam Schumacher, a senior mechanical engineering student, has been involved with the clean snowmobile team for four years and currently is modeling where the electric motor will be positioned in the chassis.

"I’ve been a snowmobile enthusiast since I was a kid," Schumacher says. "Snowmobiling is currently facing restrictions because of noise pollution and greenhouse gases, and by being on this team, I can work to keep that from happening."

Michael Maney, also a senior mechanical engineering student, says the snowmobile team is great hands-on experience for a lot of students. A former snowmobile racer, Maney says the best part is learning the entire design process. "Modeling, fabricating, putting it together and seeing how it does in the real world-you do it all," he says.

The competition has several categories, including weight, acceleration and sound tests. Additional categories include a distance race, maneuverability course, technical paper and cost analysis. Also, industry experts drive and evaluate the snowmobiles.

"Hopefully NSF will look at our snowmobile and say, ‘That’s a great job,’" Bower says.