Sustainability drives KU engineers

From left, instructor Chris Depcik and students Ryan Lierz and Lou McKown, along with other KU engineering students, have built a hybrid car using a 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle. It starts on biodiesel and then runs on an electric motor.

KU engineering students drive their hybrid car, made using a 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle, which starts on biodiesel, then runs on an electric motor. They hope the vehicle gets 500 miles per gallon one day.

A team of Kansas University engineering students spent the past year cranking up a Car of Tomorrow by rebuilding and revamping some old-school technology.

That’s right, a 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle.

“It’s a phenomenal vehicle,” said Lou McKown, support team leader on the project. “We’ve been able to build a neighborhood electric vehicle from scratch in less than a year.”

The vehicle — known officially as the Fuel Neutral Series Hybrid Vehicle Conversion Project — is the culmination of a design class for McKown and 10 other seniors in KU’s engineering school.

The seniors, dubbed EcoHawks, graduate today after envisioning, designing and executing a plan to turn the familiar Beetle donated by Das Autohaus into a one-of-a-kind unit of environmental responsibility, one capable of attaining speeds of 45 mph and stretching in-town fuel efficiency to 54 miles per gallon.

Getting the vehicle certified as street legal will be left to next year’s crop of EcoHawks, whose design responsibilities also will include gathering efficiency information and establishing the vehicle as a viable plug-in hybrid, complete with a solar-powered fueling station.

“We want them to drive around town and get some real-world data,” said Chris Depcik, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering who created the class. “We’re trying to make it as real-world applicable as possible.”

The vehicle is powered by biodiesel brewed at KU, using cooking oil from Mrs. E’s cafeteria on Daisy Hill. The hybrid component involves an electric motor powered by 10 12-volt Discovery batteries, which together weigh 800 pounds.

The EcoHawks know that their car — now weighing in at more than 1.5 tons — will operate more efficiently once its lead-acid batteries can be switched out with lighter, lithium-ion units. One day, they hope to see the vehicle get 500 mpg.

It’s the kind of experience they look forward to using in the years ahead.

“The auto industry is crying out for bright new engineers equipped with the knowledge necessary to design and build the cars of the future,” said Bob Honea, director of KU’s Transportation Research Institute, a project supporter. “By creating this new and innovative design class, Chris has created excitement and energy in his students that I am sure will assure their future.”