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UMD clean snowmobile team gobbles up awards

UMD engineering student Jake Schofield talks about the recent Clean Snowmobile Challenge at Michigan Technological University, where the UMD team won a number of awards with the sled he’s sitting on. Steve Kuchera /

Engineering students are smart, nerdy and get jobs when they graduate. We all knew that.

But they can also build one kick-butt snowmobile.

University of Minnesota Duluth students in the school's Clean Snowmobile Team took home a boatload of awards recently from the annual Clean Snowmobile Challenge at Michigan Technological University.

Teams from 19 universities from around the world participated in the six-day event which includes inspections by professional engineers, a 100-mile endurance run, cold start tests, handling and acceleration courses and technical presentations.

Not only did they take third overall — even after a valve broke and they had to replace the engine — but the UMD team also took home seven additional awards, including the most innovative design, lowest emissions, best design and most practical solution awards.

They also came in as second-most affordable — with a formula showing their machine could be mass produced and sold for about $10,800, not that far off stock machine prices.

UMD has been sending a team to the Clean Snowmobile Challenge since 2006, and they usually do well. But this year's machine seemed to impress the judges more than most.

The UMD team started with a stock Arctic Cat 700 four-stroke machine and started redesigning it for more power, better gas mileage and far fewer emissions. They succeeded on all accounts.

"What we have in here is probably 15 years or more off from being in a snowmobile you can buy, from what's required in a snowmobile. But it's showing you can get there,'' said Mark Boeckmann, a senior mechanical engineering student who was in charge of the drive train in this year's snowmobile.

UMD mechanical engineering student Mark Boeckmann talks about the Clean Snowmobile Challenge. The UMD team boosted gas mileage by more than two miles per gallon, to about 18 mpg on average. The team, using a turbocharger and capturing more emission gas to use in the combustion process, boosted the machine's horsepower from 55 to about 80. And they cut emissions by about 85 percent. Toxic nitrogen oxide, for example, dropped from about 1,700 parts per million to about 400 ppm.

"We wanted to make sure that we still had the performance people want in a snowmobile. That it looks the same (as a stock machine) and that it keeps people snowmobiling for decades to come. That it really solves the pollution issues," Boeckman said. "We didn't want this to be just a science fair project. It has to work in the real world."

This year's team won a best innovation award for a device — called a water dynamometer — that measures sound in the drivetrain of the snowmobile. Part of the effort was to reduce noise along with pollutants.

"Half the noise in a snowmobile comes from the drivetrain. We wanted to come up with a way to test that so we could reduce it,'' said Nels Eide, a junior business student on the snowmobile team.

The UMD Clean Snowmobile Team, about 15 students strong this year, is mostly comprised of mechanical engineering students but also includes business and civil engineering majors. Similar UMD teams build rockets, race cars and diesel engines that innovate over standard designs and include students from multiple disciplines.

That the hands-on experience is a game-changer for students is obvious. Four of the snowmobile team's current members already have been hired by Minnesota-based Polaris Industries, including Boeckmann — a dream job for an engineer who also loves to snowmobile.

"This makes it fun," UMD engineering instructor Jose Carrillo said of the snowmobile competition. "But the best part is that most of our graduates are leaving here with a job in hand."