Archive for Thursday, July 1, 1999


July 1, 1999


Future automotive engineers can try their hand on the real thing in a Kansas University lab.

Kansas University students are getting a chance to design alternative-fuel vehicles. And their results are getting noticed.

"That pickup runs," said Robb Sorem, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

He was barely audible over the noise of a diesel engine running in the KU lab. Two graduate students were testing diesel-ethanol fuel mixes for efficiency and emissions, hoping to find a good combination that reduced emissions and used less fossil fuel.

Sorem oversees the lab and the senior design projects, which give students a chance to work in teams and get their hands on a real machine. Competitions can give manufacturers new ideas, too.

A few years ago, a KU team has caught the eyes of Chrysler engineers. Student had modified a pickup truck to run on liquid propane -- most propane-powered engines run on gaseous propane. When using a gas, though, the engine loses 10 to 20 percent of its power, compared with gasoline. The KU team's liquid-propane engine, though, gained 300 horsepower in the stock engine and 330 horses in the modified version.

"It's fun to drive," Sorem said.

The Chrysler engineers agreed and asked the students' permission to take a ride.

This year, eight students worked two semesters to make an ethanol-burning vehicle out of a 1999 Chevrolet Silverado. In May, the truck went to a week-long competition. It was judged for design and starting ability, and it was run through driving tests such as acceleration. One of the biggest challenges for students was passing the cold-start test, since ethanol is hard to vaporize below 40 degrees.

"That's one of its drawbacks," Sorem said.

Students had to find a way to make the truck start at 20 degrees.

In ethanol's favor, it is a renewable energy source with lower emissions.

"It can be made from different by-products," Sorem said.

Ethanol costs about the same as premium fuel, though it burns faster. It also produces more power per gallon.

To get their Silverado running, students had to modify the fuel system, the engine and the exhaust system. It took months.

"We got the truck in November," Sorem said. "We pretty much worked on it nonstop for the competition until April."

The engine doesn't burn 100 percent ethanol -- it burns 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.

"We couldn't burn 100 percent ethanol, or we'd never get it started," Sorem said.

Mechanical engineers can take classes that focus on automotive engineering at KU, but there are only a few offered. Instead, Sorem said, he's more interested in turning out well-rounded mechanical engineers who can take on automotive jobs if they wish. He wants his students to learn problem-solving and creative thinking.

"That's why people hire engineers," he said.

-- Felicia Haynes' phone message number is 832-7173. Her e-mail address is

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