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Clean Snowmobile Challenge in US National Parks - 2002-04-06

Snowmobiles are causing problems in Yellowstone National Park, the most heavily attended of America's national parks. These off-road vehicles are much less efficient and account for most of the total air pollution in the 900,000 hectare park. While former President Clinton ordered a phase out of snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, President Bush has called for a review of the policy and a new environmental impact study. Following public hearings over the next several months, a decision on the new Bush plan is expected by the end of the year. While the noisy, polluting snowmobile has earned the wrath of many environmentalists, efforts are being made to transform the snowmobile into a more eco-friendly vehicle.

Last week, the Society for Automotive Engineers welcomed university students from across the United States to the 3rd annual Snowmobile Challenge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The competition's aim was to design a snowmobile engine that is quieter, more fuel efficient and cleaner burning.

The challenge became the senior-class project for Brian Willson's students at Colorado State University. "What they produced is a snowmobile that has reduced the carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon levels by over 99 percent," he says. "It has reduced fuel consumption by 44 percent. The sound from the sled has been reduced down to conversational levels. And, it is done at a very economical cost."

Skirble:"How does this compare with the other sleds at the competition? This seems like a radical change."
Willson:"Students at the competition have taken two approaches. A number of the teams have chosen to take the 2-stroke cycle engines that are currently in snowmobiles and replace them with 4-stroke cycle similar to what is used in automobiles. What we've chosen to do is to retain the 2-stroke cycle engine and try to clean it up."

It took the students the better part of the school year to do the job. They installed a new type of fuel injection system, added a catalytic converter to oxidize escaping pollutants and developed a new muffler to reduce noise.

Team advisor Bryan Willson says the engine has a potentially larger market beyond its recreational use. "If you go to India, to Asia, to Africa, a lot of people drive vehicles with 2-stroke cycle engines - whether they be scooters or three-wheelers or motorized tricycles they use an engine that is very similar to a snowmobile type engine," he says. "The result is that they have ghastly problems as a result of these 2-stroke engines. So, the technology that we are working on here - for admittedly recreational applications - could have profound applications for transportation in Asia, in Africa and in the developing world. That is something that we are definitely interested in pursuing, working with groups in-country to see if we can apply this technology, even in retrofits to go back and retrofit some of the millions of scooters and vehicles that are currently polluting the air in 3rd world countries."

Bryan Willson says the Snowmobile Challenge has also been an opportunity for students to come together as a team to solve real-life problems.

Graduating senior Michael Duncan says the experience has helped him decide what he wants to do as an engineer "I didn't know I liked the field so much," he says. "I didn't know that I wanted to work with engines. I wasn't sure if I was interested in design, construction or management, and through this it is has given me a chance to see a little bit of all of that."

Michael Duncan says he is also proud of the environmental component of his work. "I hold my head a little higher when I tell people about the project, and that we have successfully created an engine that has such an astounding reduction in emissions while maintaining performance," he says.

While Colorado State University didn't win the Clean Snowmobile Challenge they placed 3rd in a field of 16 - Bryan Willson says the team achieved what it set out to do. The students built a lightweight motor that produces less than one percent of the pollution of a typical snowmobile.