The University of Michigan has had one of the preeminent solar car teams in the world for more than two decades, but a new group of students is looking to make its own mark in the world of green engineering. The school will be fielding its first entry in the annual SAE Supermileage competition this year.

If you think a bunch of newbies would launch their effort somewhat low-key, you probably aren't from Michigan or familiar with the Wolverine Way. Michigan has set its goal at nothing short of the North American record of bettering 3,169 miles per gallon with its single-cylinder, Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engine. The expectation is that the Michigan car will hit 3,300 mpg.

The Supermileage competition has been held since 1980, requiring students to design and build extremely lightweight, single-seat vehicles. The competition itself involves circling the Eaton Corporation Proving Grounds test track. Last year, 27 teams competed, with Quebec's Universite de Sherbrooke dominating the competition, recording 2,158 mpg, over 500 mpg more than its cross-province rival, Universite' Laval.

The 2012 Supermileage competition is scheduled for June 7-8 in Marshall, MI. Scroll down to read the press release and watch Michigan's promotional video.

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Mowing down the competition: Supermileage Team aims to break fuel barriers

ANN ARBOR, Mich.-Can a car really get 3,300 miles to the gallon? The University of Michigan's Supermileage Team is on its way to proving it can-with a lawnmower engine.

"We are taking something that is in your backyard and turning it into something that's sleek, modern and high-performance," said mechanical engineering senior Laura Pillari, project manager and co-founder of the team.

The new student team will compete in its first competition this summer, the SAE International Supermileage Challenge, in Marshall, Mich. The competition challenges student teams to design and construct a single-person, fuel-efficient vehicle with a small four-stroke engine.

The team's goal this year is to beat the North American record of 3,169 miles per gallon, and to better it by reaching 3,300 mpg.

"Fuel efficiency is one of those issues prevalent in society today," said chief engineer and co-founder Brett Merkel, a senior in mechanical engineering. "The technology we're coming up with can have far-reaching effects, and be implemented in just a few years."

In fact, that process has already begun. The fuel injection system, designed by mechanical engineering student and team member Lihang Nong for the team's vehicle, is now the focus of a start-up called PicoSpray. The company won the $20,000 second prize in the Michigan Clean Energy Venture Challenge earlier this year, and it was selected to spend the next term as a tenant in the U-M student business incubator TechArb.

According to Merkel, the fuel injection system can drop the price of an engine for single-person vehicles such as motorcycles and mopeds by 70 percent, and create 50 times fewer emissions than the current engines used.

"Since those single-person vehicles are the primary mode of transportation in many third-world countries, it could have a resounding impact on emissions," said Merkel.

You won't see a car on the street that is getting 3,300 miles to the gallon anytime soon, the students say, but the technology is heading in that direction.

The team used a requirements-based design approach to the vehicle construction, which Merkel said is unique to teams in the Wilson Center. The project was broken down into the individual requirements of the vehicle-chassis, engine and body-and assigned to different groups within the team.

Requirements-based design is a technique that's been used in the industry for quite some time, according to the team's faculty adviser and professor of engineering practice Harvey Bell, but most students don't get exposed to the idea until later in their education.

"I think these competition teams are one of the more significant parts of these students' engineering education for that reason," said Bell, who is also co-director of the Multidisciplinary Design Program and worked in the auto industry for 39 years. "The role that engineers serve in society is to create products and services that are beneficial to society. And the operative word there is create. One of the challenges of an educational institution is to give students a chance to be creative, and these student teams do that."

Body team leader Karan Jain, a junior in mechanical engineering, remembers why he got started with the team. "I was just sitting on my grades alone and wanted to do something more," Jain said. "I wanted to have something that I'd accomplished while I was in college, not just sit in a classroom. This is tangible. It's right here. I can say 'I did that'."

Merkel, who founded the team with Pillari after attending the 2010 competition as an intern at Eaton Corporation, said the goal was not only to compete in the 2012 challenge, but also to make the team sustainable in the future.

"It's crucial to have diversity among the team," said Merkel. "The project management team supports the engineering team. It gives us legs to stand on. If we just went out and built the car this year and didn't think about the longevity and business of it, we'd be starting from scratch every year."

The team has received support from local companies like Ford Research & Design, NSK Motion & Control and Falcon Motorsports. The SAE International Supermileage Challenge will be held June 7-8 at the Eaton Corporation Marshall Proving Grounds in Marshall, Michigan.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      LOL, this is the same University that thinks their MABEL is bipedal, and advanced technology.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Go Blue!!
      Cory Stansbury
      • 3 Years Ago
      I actually built the engine for the Rose Hulman entry that won back in 2007. Great event and great teams. I think we got 1572 MPG that year, but I honestly can't remember exactly. We found team success largely came down more to how much spare time one could find between heavy course loads than knowledge. We always had lots of very sound ideas on how to improve and we had the money...just not the time :( Also...testing. Having enough time to finsh early and test is invaluable. Last year I was on the team, we had two cars for the Shell Ecomarathon Americas. One was super high tech and won the innovation award. On that car we developed our own engine management computer (and no I don't mean megasquirt. We actually wrote the underlying controlling code and algorithms) that controlled everything including an electronic clutch. Theoretically, the car should have absolutely dominated...but it was untested and barely finished a run because we literally finished it at the track. The simple carb car with a go-cart style clutch got better mileage and ended up getting us 2nd or 3rd IIRC. Testing is king.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Not real MPG. I used to be on a student team that competed, you get MPG for doing proper tech reports, and people turn off their engines precisely so they rely on shutting off the engine so they coast up a hill to almost a complete stop. In the real world that kind of driving is completely unrealisric
        • 3 Years Ago
        Damnit. I was hoping my next car would be around 3,000mpg.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Well, before reading the comments, I too was thinking that this car would actually give 3,300 mpg. Just curious to know what the real mpg of the car would be - in normal driving conditions. Anyone have any idea about that? Its high time that high mpg became a priority in America - reducing our oil import bills, and ensuring that we can depend solely on domestic oil production and the like. Perhaps hybrid vehicles, and battery operated cars will take us there.
        Cory Stansbury
        • 3 Years Ago
        I can tell you a few things. First off, I can already tell you they're chasing some things in the wrong direction. But that's ok, Michigan is a great school with smart kids and they'll figure it out. It takes a few years to "get there." I think it was the team's 3rd year when we started having great success [/borat]. One instance is the mention of "developing lightweight materials." If this were a normal fuel economy event, that would be great and all, but it isn't. You never touch the brakes in this competition until the very end. You burn and coast to average 15 or so mph. Ideally you'd magically burn just once for the whole run, but that's impossible without a flywheel or battery hybrid ( of my ideas I didn't have time for). However, making the car heavier does allow you to burn fewer times, reducing cold startups. That said, the longer between startups, the colder your cold startup is, so you need to find that sweet spot where you are coasting for a long period of time, allowing for a nice, long burn but you aren't letting the engine get too cold between starts. We actually added 50 lbs. of ballast on our last run which produced the winning result in 2007. Anyway, on to your question. The cars we built, geared correctly, could probably do as much as 100 mph due to their ridiculously low rolling and air resistance...that with 5-6 or so horsepower (that was our big engine...burned tires off cars). Our BSFC was pretty solid for an Otto engine running under the rules requiring you start with a Briggs (maybe .4 or so). SO that would be about 2 lb/hr. at 100 mph (0.33 gallons). So roughly 300 mpg at 100 mph. Probably close to 400-450 mpg at highway speeds. With a fully custom engine, we could have seen our BSFC down in the .3x range, which would have put you over 500 comfortably in my opinion. There is another competition with fuel economy which requires the car to be a little more realistic (Urban Concept), so you can look there for real world application. Please bear in mind that the above is coming from my memory of something I did a while back. I design nuke plants now, so my engine stuff is a little more rusty.
          Big Squid
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Cory Stansbury
          Thank you for designing nuke plants. I hope you will be very, very busy.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Interesting! Wonder when a car designed using electro magnetic technology, like the Chinese just came out with their "electro magnetic" hover car...or like the H2 0 car the Japanese came out with in 2008 and Elon Musk came out with his "Tesla" (Nikola Tesla" electric car.
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