A national competition will allow KU engineering students to convert a standard gasoline-powered truck into a high-performing, fuel-efficient vehicle that runs on ethanol.
Nine Kansas University engineering seniors Friday expressed appreciation for their free 1999 Chevrolet Silverado four-wheel drive, extended cab pickup with the Z71 off-road package and 5.3-liter Vortec V8 engine.
Then they outlined plans to gut and rebuild the plush $35,000 vehicle's engine, tweak onboard microprocessors and add high-performance equipment.
It's all part of preparations for the national Ethanol Vehicle Challenge, in which these KU students will compete against 13 college teams do determine how best to take advantage of the benefits of ethanol fuel in vehicles without sacrificing performance or consumer acceptability.
The objective is to make the gasoline-powered Chevy run on E85, a blend of 85 percent denatured ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.
Team leader Tim Martin, a mechanical engineering senior from Lenexa, said the group's biggest challenge would be to stay on schedule. The team's work will culminate in May with a battery of tests at General Motors headquarters in Pontiac, Mich.,
"It's important that we allow enough time at the end for testing and working all the kinks out," Martin said.
Last year's KU team, competing in this event for the first time, finished next to last in the 14-team field. They had a solid design, Martin said, but fell behind schedule and rushed the final product.
Martin said $26,000 was budgeted for modification work on the truck. The Kansas Corporation Commission is sponsoring the project, but KU students must generate additional funding.
Technical challenges are daunting. Ethanol engines have difficulty starting in cold temperatures (below 40 degrees) and alcohol fuels are quite corrosive to automotive parts.
Interest in this kind of research among government, industry and environmental forces expands in conjunction with growing demand for cleaner-burning fuels.
Currently, about 10,000 cars on U.S. roads run on E85, said Steve Sorem of the Nebraska Eth-anol Board. That number is expected to increase to 850,000 in 1999 when Ford, Chry-sler and General Motors release flexible fuel vehicles that run on either E85 or gasoline.
The KU engineering students drew the attention Friday of Greg Krissek, the state's assistant secretary of agriculture and Gov. Bill Graves' designee on the Governors' Ethanol Coalition. That coalition, formed in 1991, has the participation of 22 state governors.
Krissek said the competition was a terrific academic opportunity for students, a good recruiting tool for the automotive industry (many participating students take jobs with car makers) and an important step in developing bigger markets for Kansas agriculture products.
"There are no limits on creativity," he told students. "One of the keys is to have fun."
Krissek said domestic ethanol production 20 years ago amounted to 500,000 gallons a year. Currently, 1.7 billion gallons is produced annually in the United States.
It's a number worth increasing, said Sue Schulte, who represented the Kansas Corn Growers Assn. and the Kansas Grain Sorghum Producers Assn. at the team's briefing in Learned Hall.
Kansas has four plants that produce 16 million gallons of ethanol annually. It takes about 6.4 million bushels of corn, grain sor-ghum and wheat to make that much ethanol.
"Corn growers and grain sor-ghum producers ... have a great stake in ethanol," Schulte said.
The Governors' Ethanol Coalition documented a 5-cent to 10-cent per bushel in-crease in grain prices in areas near ethanol plants. The four in Kansas are in Atchison, Colwich, Leoti and Garden City.
KU is the only school in Kansas, Missouri or Oklahoma to be selected for the contest. The challenge is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, General Motors and National Resources Canada. It's administered by Argonne National Laboratory.
-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is email@example.com.