MSU Engineering Team Wins National Fuel-Efficiency Challenge

Dr. Marshall Molen

Mississippi State's Challenge X team placed first overall among 17 other universities Thursday in the third annual national competition to find innovative ways of redesigning a fuel-efficient and environmentally-friendly SUV.

The university team of undergraduate and graduate students was awarded the top position overall and in 10 individual categories at the nine-day competition in Milford, Mich. The challenge: to re-engineer a 2005 Chevrolet Equinox crossover sports utility vehicle using advanced propulsion technologies that increase fuel efficiencies and reduce environmental impact while retaining consumer appeal.

Organized by General Motors and the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, the competition involved more than a dozen evaluations, among them acceleration, off-road performance, greenhouse gas impact, fuel economy, emissions, and consumer acceptability. Oral presentations and technical research papers also were part of the judging.

Mississippi State will receive a total of $31,500 in prize money, including $15,000 from the National Science Foundation for the outstanding faculty adviser, electrical and computer engineering professor Marshall Molen.

The team designed a "through-the road parallel hybrid electric" vehicle with a 1.9 GM direct injection turbo diesel engine fueled by B20 biodiesel. The vehicle increased its fuel economy by 48 percent compared to the original design.

The competition involved more than determining a winner; it also was designed to help the United State develop more environmentally-friendly vehicles.

"Developing more energy-efficient and 'greener' automotive technologies has become a global priority," said John F. Mizroch, principal deputy assistant secretary with DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. "Students competing in Challenge X are on a quest to deliver environmentally friendly, functional and fuel efficient vehicles that consumers want to buy."

On their way to victory, the MSU team experienced several nervous moments. Just a few days into the competition, the vehicle's clutch stopped working. Molen said members successfully removed the engine and installed a new clutch within a few hours.

"I think a lot of folks thought we'd have to withdraw from the competition," Molen said.

MSU students worked many hours over the last three years on the competition, which actually continues for another year. In 2006, the team placed third overall in the competition, along with winning first place in individual categories.

The experience has paid off for many of the students who learned about new hybrid technologies.

Christopher Whitt, a mechanical engineering graduate student from Lauderdale, said the experience working on the Challenge X team involved teamwork and analyzing complex automotive challenges. The hard work paid off in many ways, he emphasized, adding that he has accepted a job with GM and will start work for the automotive company this month.

"It's taken a lot of long nights," Whitt said.

Others competing in Challenge X include the universities of California at Davis, Michigan, Tennessee, Texas at Austin, Tulsa, Waterloo, and Wisconsin-Madison, as well as Michigan Technological, Ohio State, Pennsylvania State, San Diego State, Texas Tech, Akron, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia universities, and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.