April 14. 2014 9:00AM

MSOE students design cars to maximize mileage

Energy & the Environment

By Erica Breunlin

With guidance from industry professionals, Milwaukee School of Engineering's Supermileage Vehicle Team is setting out to create two fuel-efficient cars that can travel at least 1,000 miles per gallon.
Electric car MSOE student Adrian Robillard takes the wheel of the MSOE team's electric car, which was built two years ago as a gasoline-powered vehicle and converted to electric in recent months.

The team, comprised of about 25 MSOE underclassmen interested in pushing the limits of energy efficiency, is gearing up to enter its vehicles in the 2014 Shell Eco-marathon Americas competition later this month. The international competition, held in Houston, pits more than 100 student teams against one another in the challenge to build vehicles that travel the farthest using the least gas.
Gasoline car This gasoline prototype, pictured with MSOE student Adrian Robillard, was new during last year’s competitions and is now in the second year of a two-year design cycle.

The 2014 competition is MSOE's third, and its first time entering an electric-powered vehicle. In years past, students have entered gasoline-powered vehicles.

"This year, the team took on two projects: improving the body and powertrain system of the gasoline prototype vehicle we have constructed and converting an older vehicle the team built to electric power," said Adrian Robillard, vice project manager and an MSOE sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering.

In June, the group of students will enter their gasoline prototype into the Society of Automotive Engineers' Supermileage Competition in Marshall, Mich. That competition largely inspired the inception of the team in 2008.

As they approach the competitions with a baseline goal of 1,000 mpg, they're aiming to best a school record of 842 mpg set two years ago.

"Our aspirational goal that we think we might have a shot at is 1,500 mpg, which might put us in the top three," Robillard said.

Shell Eco-marathon's most recent winner reached 3,587 mpg. The winning vehicle is usually between 1,500 mpg and 3,000 mpg and depends on several factors, such as weather conditions and how experienced teams are in competing.

Preparations and calculations for the upcoming competitions began last September, and since then MSOE students have turned to industry professionals for advice on fine tuning both cars.

Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation Inc. has been one key mentor and donor to the project. The industrial automation company donated parts for a rolling dynamometer, which allows the team to tune the whole vehicle instead of just the engine and simulate driving on road conditions.

Wauwatosa-based Briggs & Stratton Corp. has also advised students on how to modify their engine to be more efficient.

"(Professionals) know more about it than we do, about how to build and design things better, and it's good to have that kind of experience," Robillard said. "We can try it by trial and error, but that just takes so long when we have the information just a couple miles down the road."

Other companies in the region have provided donations to the MSOE team, with Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp. contributing batteries and general tools and Milwaukee-based Joy Global Inc. donating funds.

And Waterloo-based Trek Bicycle Corp. has become a particularly close partner of the team. Engineers from the company have taken time to meet personally with team members to discuss several aspects of the cars, including steering, geometry, componentry, aerodynamics, and ways to improve the chassis and bodies.

Jim Colegrove, a senior composite manufacturing engineer who has worked for Trek for almost 24 years, has been an instrumental mentor on optimizing the weight and sturdiness of the car with the use of carbon fiber. In addition to meeting with students at Trek, Colegrove has visited MSOE to review their cars, perform structural analyses on carbon fiber chassis tubes that Trek donated, and discuss manufacturing techniques using carbon fiber.

"What I helped them do was to improve the structure of the outer body and shell using different techniques that are pretty well known in the composites industry but were not known to them," Colegrove said.

While the MSOE Supermileage Vehicle Team has incorporated carbon fiber into the outer bodies of its vehicles in past years, those bodies were flimsy, Colegrove said.

"The new body will be structurally more sound," he said. "It should be stiffer, stronger (and) I'm hoping lighter."

The bodies should also hold shape better, which maintains the aerodynamics of the cars, Colegrove said.

He described his relationship with MSOE students as a win on all fronts – for Trek as the company recruits the next-generation workforce, for students as they gain knowledge to leverage in future jobs, and for the global population as it faces significant environmental challenges.

"If we can get people excited about creating more energy efficient vehicles, that will translate to great things down the road," Colegrove said.

Exciting students with these kinds of projects is part of MSOE's broader objective to support greener energy, said Christopher Damm, a professor of mechanical engineering at MSOE and faculty advisor to the Supermileage Vehicle Team.

"It's important that we educate our students (on) what the grand challenges are in engineering and energy use, and the environmental impacts from energy use is one of these grand challenges," Damm said.

The lessons gleaned from designing fuel-efficient vehicles translate to other engineering problems that involve efficiency and use of low carbon energy resources.

"And many of our students go on to work in the energy industry where they can apply those lessons," Damm said.