CU students build vehicle that gets 1,767 mpg

Team places second at Eco competition

CU’s Shell Eco-Marathon team’s car achieved a fuel efficiency of 1,767 miles per gallon – breaking the team’s initial goal of 1,500 miles per gallon. The team of five mechanical engineering students is, from left, Joe Gratcosky, Mathew Fedderson, Paul Sweazey, Jeff Vankeulen and Jared Wampler. Enlarge photo

University of Colorado-Boulder/Associated Press

CU’s Shell Eco-Marathon team’s car achieved a fuel efficiency of 1,767 miles per gallon – breaking the team’s initial goal of 1,500 miles per gallon. The team of five mechanical engineering students is, from left, Joe Gratcosky, Mathew Fedderson, Paul Sweazey, Jeff Vankeulen and Jared Wampler.

BOULDER (AP) – On a recent Saturday, University of Colorado senior Paul Sweazey slid into the driver’s seat of a custom car built by former engineering students.

His knees came almost to his chest as Sweazey’s team put the shell over the top of the go-cart-like car, locking his head in place.

“There’s no wiggle room, that’s for sure,” Sweazey said, recalling the sensation.

The mechanical engineering student started his engine and began racing around the track in Houston, pushing the vehicle’s speed near its 30 mph limit and then coasting around the turns, saving the car’s energy and fuel. The car sat low to the ground, so even 20 mph felt fast, he said.

Sweazey eventually found the perfect balance, leading CU’s team of five mechanical engineers to second place March 31 in the Shell Eco-Marathon competition, which challenges high school, college and university students from across the world to build energy-efficient vehicles.

The CU car achieved a fuel efficiency of 1,767 miles per gallon during Sweazey’s best run – breaking the team’s initial goal of 1,500 miles per gallon, students said.

The car’s lightweight frame and missing amenities, including air bags, suspension, steering and passenger space, make it possible for the vehicle to achieve efficiency that street-legal cars cannot, students said. Jeff Vankeulen, team member and CU senior, said Sweazey’s driving strategies also contributed to the group’s success.

The 120-pound car’s base is shaped like a 10-foot-long canoe and is about shoulder-length wide with three large wheels. A handlebar steering wheel made out of bullet-proof glass is perched on the end of a steel rod, and the car’s motherboard sits in a clear plastic box behind the driver’s back with bundles of braided, multicolored wires connecting hardware that controls air-to-fuel ratios.

This was CU’s sixth year to compete, and Sweazey’s team received the highest ranking achieved by CU students in their category, which included 30 teams.

Engineering students have to apply to be on the team and dedication is key for a successful result, Vankeulen said. The car, which looks like the capsule on the front end of a fighter jet, was built by previous students, he said, and each year the competition team improves the design and efficiency of the car.

Last year’s team took seventh place, achieving just more than 1,000 miles per gallon, Vankeulen said.

Sweazey, Vankeulen and fellow team members Jared Wampler, Joseph Gratcofsky and Matthew Feddersen have been working on the car’s fuel system since August, clocking about 30 hours per week each on the project, Sweazey said.

“This team takes a lot of commitment,” he said. “We have four weeks less than most senior design projects because we have to be done by spring break, so we can compete, while the other projects aren’t due for another four weeks.”

Sweazey and Vankeulen have previous experience working with engines.

Sweazey has been working on motorcycle engines since high school and said this project was more fun than anything he’s done before.

“This was perfect for me since I already had an interest in mechanics,” Sweazey said. “Plus, driving that thing is so fun.”

Vankeulen rebuilt a 1969 Camaro in high school, but the competition car is a little different, he said.

“This car is 100 percent custom built,” Vankeulen said. “From the mother board to the body, this was all done by students, so it’s different then just going out and buying parts and putting them together. You really have to know how everything works here.”

Students said they received a $1,000 prize that they are leaving for next year’s team in hopes of expanding the school’s fleet to two cars.

“The good teams usually have between two and four cars,” Sweazey said. “That way they can tweak them differently and test what works best. We’re hoping we’ll have another one ready by 2014.”