Failure makes teams better at MTU’s Clean Snowmobile Challenge

Kali Katerberg/Daily Mining Gazette Teams wait for their turn to test machine modifications, during the SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge, which wrapped up this weekend.

HOUGHTON — Reworking snowmobiles to make them clean, quiet and energy efficient, the SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge brings in college teams of engineers from across the U.S. and even Canada.

The challenge is difficult, and many competitors fail, said Jay Meldrum director of the Michigan Tech Keweenaw Research Center and challenge lead organizer. Many of the participants come back in succeeding years, building on what they learned in the previous years, to eventually winning.

“First and foremost this is an educational opportunity for the students,” Meldrum said. “It’s not directly about technology development, because you don’t do technology development with undergraduate students. …But the fact of the matter is some of the things that are tried by these students do end up on snowmobiles.”

He pointed to the 2007 Ski-Doo 600 as an example where direct injector technology was used to make two-stroke engine snowmobiles no longer have a bad-smelling exhaust.

Meldrum sees cleanliness and noise as the two main and most difficult areas the teams must pay attention to.

Kali Katerberg/Daily Mining Gazette A team in the Clean Snowmobile Challenge tests its snowmobile modifications on a straight-line acceleration run of 500 feet, one of the trials the machines undergo.

“There’s a law that says it has to be this clean, in my competition you have to be much cleaner than that. …The noise isn’t easy, but it can be done. You have to go 30 mph, and you have to be below 60-70 dBA (decibels) at 50 feet. That’s quieter than a Cadillac on the inside,” Meldrum said.

“They’re competing against the rules, but they’re also, of course, competing against themselves. That’s really hard to do, and some don’t pass that,” he said.

The teams themselves were already making plans for next year’s competition.

“We’re just going to come back next year. We’re going to do a lot better. We learned a lot more,” said Michael Golup from the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Jaguars.

“This is our first year with this engine and chassis…so really we did a lot of baseline testing on it,” said team member Drew Haywood.

The team focused on getting a solid understanding of their machine and working with exhaust and engine tuning.

Not all teams were as successful this year.

“We had some unexpected engine issues that prevented us from completing the competition. …Initially, we had some issues with the electrical fittings that we had that prevented us from getting fuel pressure and later on we had issues with oil pressure,” said Trent Bellingham from North Dakota State University.

These issues can be common as they are building the system themselves, he explained.

“We had a lot of fun anyway. It was good to see a lot of the other teams and able to enjoy the local scenery. …(We were) able to learn a lot for next year as well so that we can do a little bit better,” Bellingham said.

“The better teams have come, lost, come again, do a little better, come the third time and maybe they’ll win,” Meldrum said.