Clean Machine

Engineering students optimize snowmobiles for ethanol blends
By Holly Jessen | April 15, 2011

Out of 17 snowmobiles participating in a 100-mile endurance test using a 28.7 percent blend of ethanol, only three made it to the finish line without being disqualified. The winner of the Gage Products award for best fuel economy was a team of students from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y, who achieved 21.68 miles per gallon (mpg) fuel economy.

Thirteen universities from the U.S. and Canada participated in this year’s annual Society of Automotive Engineers Clean Snowmobile Challenge. The event was held March 7-12 at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Mich. A team from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville captured second place in the fuel economy contest, with 17 mpg and the University of Idaho in Moscow took third place with 16.95 mpg.

The catch was that the competitors didn’t know exactly what ethanol blend would be used the day of the competition, says Andrew Desrosiers, a student from the winning team and a dual major in mechanical and aeronautical engineering at Clarkson. The blend could be anywhere between E20 to E29. “The sled has to be able to run on any range,” he says.

Ironically, the winning team had trouble even finding ethanol to conduct testing before the competition. Located in northern New York, the fuel isn’t easily accessible and the cost was prohibitive to have it shipped to the school, says Robert Davis, director of student engineering projects at Clarkson. Fortunately, they found a sealed pail of E85 left over from a previous project and used a weighted average to blend the fuel, Desrosiers says. Unsure what blend they’d be fueled up with at the competition the team decided to optimize the engine for E25— in the middle of the possible range. “The simple design tends to do pretty well,” he says.

The team used a piggy-back system that ran in parallel to the snowmobile’s stock fuel injectors. It increased the voltage signal to the injectors, allowing them to stay open longer and allow more fuel to the engine. The engine control system was also calibrated for optimal air/fuel mixture.

Besides the fuel economy award, the Clarkson team placed first overall in the internal combustion class, as well as winning awards for best performance, best ride, quietest snowmobile, most practical, best value and best handling. “The SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge is a great way for college students to apply classroom knowledge to the real-world challenges they will face in the future,” says Dan Finkiewicz, president and chairman of Gage Products Company. 

—Holly Jessen