A group of about 30 Kansas University students are at work this semester on what they hope becomes a new trend: an electric vehicle that gets its power from wind and solar sources.
A student group called KU EcoHawks is working to retrofit a 1997 GMC Jimmy sport utility vehicle to run solely on electric power. When complete, the vehicle will be used by KU Libraries to deliver on-campus mail.
“We’re able to apply what we’ve learned in the classroom to our own lives,” said Nathaniel Mayhew, a senior who is working on ways to provide heating and air conditioning to the vehicle. “It’s exciting.”
His issue — how to make air conditioning function without a typical motor that powers the car — is a challenging one. Mayhew said he’s considering a number of different options, including using more electrical power to turn a belt that would power the air conditioning.
More electrical power doesn’t come cheap — the Jimmy is set to have more than 1,000 small-sized rechargeable batteries to power it. When complete, the students are confident that the car will be able to run for 85 miles before needing to be recharged — far more than the estimated travel done by the libraries on a daily basis.
“We’re nerds,” admitted Olathe senior Josh Petty. “This is our passion. This is engineering at its best.”
They’re mechanical engineering nerds, to be exact, in Chris Depcik’s senior capstone class, and the car is a way to get students interested in sustainable building.
The GMC Jimmy is the second vehicle that Depcik’s students have worked on; the first is an electric Volkswagen Beetle that plugged into a building that used solar power to recharge its batteries.
The garage — near KU’s new pharmacy building on its West Campus — is serving as a home base. The students are adding wind turbines to the existing solar power on the building so it can power up the Jimmy in a more renewable way.
The students say they still need to find several thousand more dollars to complete the project; they’re looking for that from a variety of sources, including KU’s Student Senate and other outside sources. Still, the students and their instructor are hopeful that the latest vehicle can be completed by the end of the school year.
It, too, will likely be followed by yet another vehicle involving emerging technologies, Depcik said, but he isn’t quite sure what that might look like yet.
“Our main goal is to look at vehicles and say, ‘If we’re going to do it right in the future, what’s that going to look like,’” said Depcik, who founded the student organization.
That’s why the students are constantly looking to increase their knowledge of sustainable practices in making vehicles — not only in the electric GMC Jimmy but also looking at other, newer technologies in smaller-scale models.
“I think it’s a way of making a decision that will benefit us now and also will benefit us in the future,” Depcik said.