Student group cleans up snowmobiling

The Clean Snowmobile Team at the U works to find sustainable solutions for problems in the snowmobile industry.

Clean Snow vice president Brian Amundson works on a snowmobile in Lind Hall on Saturday morning. The group has been working hard to put finishing touches on to assemble their clean snowmobile before the SAE International Clean Snowmobile Challenge next week in Houghton, Michigan.

Liam James Doyle

Clean Snow vice president Brian Amundson works on a snowmobile in Lind Hall on Saturday morning. The group has been working hard to put finishing touches on to assemble their clean snowmobile before the SAE International Clean Snowmobile Challenge next week in Houghton, Michigan.

Allison Kronberg

Snowmobiles aren’t green vehicles. They emit the same amount of carbon as 250 to 500 passenger cars and produce over 700,000 tons of air pollutants annually.

A new University of Minnesota student group wants to change that.

The 10-person Clean Snowmobile Team tinkers with a snowmobile, modifying its parts and processes to increase its energy efficiency and reduce pollution with the ultimate goal of making the industry more sustainable.

The team will showcase the work it’s put into the snowmobile next week in the SAE International Clean Snowmobile Challenge in Houghton,
Mich.

The races provide the only opportunity for student-led teams to race modified clean snowmobiles in the United States. The Clean Snow Team is one of 21 teams competing from across the U.S., Canada and Europe.

“This year will really be a learning experience,” said Lucas Petersen, the team’s president and mechanical engineering senior.

He said the team doesn’t plan to place near the top this year.

But Jay Meldrum, lead organizer for the SAE International Clean Snowmobile Challenge, said winning isn’t the competition’s main objective.

“This is an educational experience for the students first,” he said. “It’s about the learning process and exposing them to the things you need to learn in order to solve engineering problems.”

Meldrum said the idea to start a collegiate race for clean snowmobile engineering came after environmental activists raised concerns in the 1990s about snowmobile pollution and the noise they caused in Yellowstone National Park — where the first challenge was held in 2000.

Most snowmobiles use two-stroke engines, which are loud and heavily polluting, as opposed to the four-stroke cycle engines used in most other vehicles.

More pressure was put on the snowmobile industry after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set emission standards for the recreational vehicles in 2002.

Proponents of the clean snowmobile competition said it could inspire engineering students to think about solutions to bridging the gap between two- and four-stroke engines that the industry hasn’t come up with yet, Meldrum said.

The strategy has proven to be productive, he said.

One student team took a technology that monitored the amount of fuel injected into the stroke of the engine — which had previously only been used for limiting emissions from industrial engines that polluted lakes — and applied it to a snowmobile for the first time in a 2007 competition, Meldrum said.

Bombardier Recreational Products and Vehicles, a prominent snowmobile company, picked up the technology shortly after the competition, he said.

“A lot of the ideas that students come up with, they’re things that could drastically change the industry, and that’s the cool part of it,” Petersen said.

Clean snowmobile teams closer to home, such as one on the University’s Duluth campus, have received attention from the industry, too.

A major snowmobile manufacturer is looking into using a part created by Duluth’s team for its vehicles.

Petersen learned about the Duluth team from its president, mechanical engineering senior Dylan Dahlheimer, while the two were interning with snowmobile producer Polaris Industries, Inc., last summer.

Dahlheimer helped Petersen get the Twin Cities team up and running and has offered guidance ever since.

“I’d like to see a well-established club down there just like it is up here, so we can compete side by side and have some friendly competition,” Dahlheimer said.

Beyond snowmobiles

The team is entirely made up of engineering students, and many have no experience with snowmobiling.

Team member and mechanical engineering senior Jane Dupay, who first started work on the snowmobile last weekend, said she’s only ridden a snowmobile a few times.

“You don’t have to know anything about it because [team members are] really good about explaining stuff,” she said. “I like to learn new things and, you know, get more real world experiences.”

So far, the team’s biggest challenge has been finding workshop space on campus.

It has had to move the operation frequently, Petersen said, and the space it’s currently using doesn’t allow enough room to test changes made to the vehicle.

But with help from Student Unions and Activities, the team hopes to get more space as it increases its presence on campus.

Engineering freshman Ryan Fix joined the team after visiting its table at Explore-U during Welcome Week. He said he has enjoyed working with the team to find solutions in making snowmobiles more efficient.

“Before, I had thought I wanted to design farm equipment or something,” he said. “And now, it’s like, anything would be fun to design if you’re on a good team.”