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Clean snowmobile competition winner: environment
If you've never heard of an electric snowmobile, you probably haven't heard of Michigan Tech's annual competition showcasing them, either. There are both.
Posted March 22, 2013
Last week, twenty-one teams from across the United States and Canada participated in the eleventh annual Clean Snowmobile Competition, in which teams of engineers and snowmobile enthusiasts present and test their designs for snowmobiles that run more quietly, cleanly, and efficiently. The competition's goal is to develop a snowmobile that can be used in pristine wildlife areas such as national parks without harm to fauna or flora. It's run by the engineering department of Michigan Technological University and the school's Keweenaw Research Center, with lots of support from Gage Products Company (a maker of custom-fuel blends, among other products).

The sport of snowmobiling has been the center of some controversy for several years. The debate's been particularly intense in the United States, ever since the animal-rights group Fund for Animals filed suit in 1997 to try to stop snowmobiling in the Yellowstone National Park. That suit, which cited the detrimental effects of snowmobiles' emissions and noise on wildlife populations, finally culminated in 2008 legislation that restricted snowmobiling in the park.

Canada has seen some similar debates, though seemingly not as hostile. This may be because Canadian snowmobilers and environmentalists have a longer history of working together (and in many cases are the same people). So it's good to see an approach to snowmobiling that incorporates environmentalism right into the enthusiasm for the sport.

Of the twenty-one teams that participated, four of them were from Canadian universities. The team from McGill University, in Montreal, prides itself on being the first team (and for many years, the only) ever to bring a fully electric snowmobile to the Clean Snowmobile Challenge. This year, there were seven teams registered in the Challenge's "zero emissions" category, but for logistical and other reasons, only two competed. McGill's team took home the prize in that category.

Their snowmobile is named the Wendigo, after the elusive "spirit of the lonely places" that dwells in the most remote and pristine reaches of the wilderness. That name may prove especially poignant if the team reaches its goal of accompanying scientific expeditions to the North Pole. These expeditions are a particularly good niche fit for the electric snowmobile, which can allow scientists to reach the pristine areas that they want to sample without contaminating the landscape along the way. In fact, McGill's electric snowmobile was already used in 2007 by a team of Greenland Summit Station scientists who needed to travel to a snow-sampling zone without leaving a trace of CO2 in the snow. Until then, the scientists had traveled on cross-country skis; with the Wendigo, they were able to move much more quickly and take more equipment.

The University of Waterloo's team is an undergraduate engineering student organization whose snowmobile designs are aimed at the high-performance snowmobiling enthusiast. Their sled started strong but had some trouble with the 100-mile Endurance Run that launches the Challenge. In this run, teams start by doing several laps around the Keweenaw Research Center, then, if they're still going, they take a path north to Copper Harbor. Waterloo's snowmobile lost oil pressure along the way and had to withdraw from the Endurance Run – but so did three other teams. In fact, a Challenge spokesman said, having six out of the ten teams reach the finish line is a remarkably good result.

One of those teams was from the École de Technologie Supérieure. Their team, which calls itself Clean Snowmobile QUIETS, was overjoyed at having been among the teams to successfully finish the Endurance Run—especially as this was the team's first year to do so, after competing in the Clean Snowmobile Challenge every year for the past ten years. Though the QUIETS Club didn't win any specific awards, it was clear that for them, the successful 100-mile run was all the award they needed.

Finally, Queen's University in Ontario sent The Queen's Fuel Cell Team, which works on a variety of fuel cell-powered vehicles and devices. They hope to pioneer the use of fuel cell-powered snowmobiles, partly by retrofitting an existing snowmobile to run on Polymer Electrolyte Membrane fuel cells. This, they believe, will help demonstrate that fuel cell technology is not only appropriate for large vehicles, but has much wider applications.

These four teams—and their colleagues on the US teams—are showing how advanced technology and creativity can help solve not only the environmental and legal problems posed by snowmobiling, but help discover technologies with potentially much wider applications. Who would have thought snowmobile races were the font of so much high-technology thinking?
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Newsroom Notes
Clean snowmobile competition winner: environment

File Under:
Event, Green, Automotive, MTU, KRC, Gage Products
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