Kettering takes snowmobile challenge

HOUGHTON – Located in Flint, only an hour or so away from the epicenter of Michigan’s auto industry, Kettering University participates in all of the Society of Automotive Engineers design competitions.

But, “Out of all of SAE’s events, we love the winter the best,” said Kettering Clean Snowmobile Challenge team member Jeremy Peshkin, whose team won first place in the Internal Combustion category of the 2014 challenge.

McGill University of Montreal, Canada won the Zero Emissions, or electric, category of the challenge, which wrapped up competition with acceleration, load test and handling events Saturday at Michigan Technological University’s Keweenaw Research Center.

Peshkin said the reason his team gets so into the challenge is that it offers more room for experimentation and innovation than other design events.

That’s allowed his team to perfect an innovative, turbocharged Miller cycle 4-stroke engine, controlled with student-designed software. It got them to second place in last year’s competition – then they added a new exhaust and other final touches that took them over the top.

It’s a win that’s been a long time in the making, according to Peshkin.

“We spend a lot of months on calibration, design and planning,” Peshkin said, “Then just a couple, really, putting it together.”

McGill, which repeated as Zero Emissions champion, was the only electric team to complete all events this year. They used new battery packs, but stuck with the same control systems and most of the other components that worked for them last year.

A clear understanding of safety practices gave them a leg up, according to team member Cyrille Goldstein.

“Most of the difference is keeping a really clear control of high voltage,” Goldstein said. “There needs to be a good startup and shutoff sequence for getting the voltage out of the battery pack. A lot of it is, if something fails, does it fail safe?”

KRC Director Jay Meldrum, lead organizer of the event, said he considered the challenge a success, particularly in the number of Internal Combustion sleds that completed the event.

“We had one team go through the technical inspection in 22 minutes. That’s a record,” he added.

Many teams, he said, never have access to sound-level meters, emissions tests, or even snow to ride on before coming to competition.

“This is the first time they see the real performance of the sled,” he said.

Now, event organizers will immediately begin thinking about next year, Meldrum said. One big effort, he said, will be to have Zero Emission sled teams turn designs in much sooner, so they’ll be able to make technical and safety corrections ahead of competition.

He said he’ll also be looking to change the isobutanol fuel mixture for the internal combustion sleds, and organizers will be considering creating a new category for diesel snowmobiles. Diesels were to have been eliminated after this year’s competition, but die-hard diesel lovers may have convinced him otherwise.

It was something of a difficult year for Michigan Tech’s teams, neither of which placed in the top three. The electric sled didn’t pass inspection, and the Internal Combustion team blew its engine its first time on an indoor power-testing device.

“[Friday] night we were here until 11, replacing the motor on the sled,” said team Captain Cody Fackender. It wasn’t enough to rescue their competitive chances, but they earned the satisfaction of completing the event.

“It’s good to have a good group of guys that work fast,” Fackender said.

“I think it’s when people actually learn the most, when things go wrong,” he added. “You hear that in school, but you don’t actually get to see it.”

The “meeting of the minds” Tech had with other teams was also valuable, he said. “We’ve helped a lot of other teams, and they’ve helped us as well. It’s been good.”

David Lomasney, a representative from MacLean-Fogg, which donated a new trophy to the event this year that will have every winning team member’s name engraved on it, said he was impressed with both the event and the students.

“I’m leaving here feeling good after talking to these kids,” he said. “These kids are sharp.”