HOUGHTON - Dozens of visitors with snowmobiles will be descending on the Copper Country next week, but they're not your average winter tourists.
These snowmobilers will be in town for the 15th annual Society of Automotive Engineers Clean Snowmobile Challenge, which will kick off Monday with registration and inspections at Michigan Technological University's Keweenaw Research Center, near the Houghton County Memorial Airport.
The event, in its 12th year at the KRC, was created primarily as an educational program for engineering students, according to Jay Meldrum, director of the KRC and lead organizer of the challenge.
Gazette file photos
For spectators, the test course may be the most exciting part of the Society for Automotive Engineers Clean Snowmobile Challenge, but the competition is mostly won in the shop. This photo comes from the 2012 event.
"But that said, the students have come up with some good ideas that have influenced industry," Meldrum said. "But mostly it's to learn about clean engines and quiet snowmobiles."
Students compete in two divisions, internal combustion and zero-emissions, with sleds tested in several different categories for each division. Teams in both divisions begin with stock snowmobliles, then modify them to meet competition standards.
The zero-emissions, or electric, snowmobile competition is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which uses electric sleds in their research to preserve unspoiled arctic environments. Seven teams will compete in that category.
Meldrum said many students in that category might at one time have competed in solar car or similar competitions, which have become less common.
"Those have sort of fallen by the wayside," he said, "and this gives them an opportunity to play in the electric world."
The internal combustion category features 13 teams and a brand new sponsor, MacLean-Fogg Component Solutions, which has created the MacLean-Fogg Cup to commemorate winning teams.
For students returning to the internal combustion competition, this year will offer a fresh challenge, as sleds will be running on gasoline mixed with the biofuel isobutanol, instead of the standard ethanol.
"The challenge is to calibrate the engine to use that fuel," Meldrum said. "Every time you use a different fuel it will have a different octane level and a different oxygen content. Isobutanol doesn't have as much oxygen as ethanol, and allows for more energy in the fuel."
While some Clean Snowmobile Challenge events will be closed to the public, there will be opportunities to check out the sleds. Meldrum recommended the public display Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Copper Country Mall. Community members can meet team members, ask questions and see the sleds close up.
Then, on March 8, the KRC will be opening its test course to the adult public from 10 a.m. to noon for the Polaris-sponsored acceleration and handling events.
"It's going to be very cold during the week of competition, but we look forward to seeing people rooting for Michigan Tech at the public events," said Tech team captain Cody Fackender.
Meldrum said many of the corporate sponsors on hand for the event are largely there to recruit students for their companies. Many of those recruiters are former competitors themselves, he noted.
"A few years from now no one will remember who won, but they'll remember they competed, and were given the opportunity to try out ideas - right or wrong," he said.
But at this point, the students are in it to win.
"We're hoping to place very well at the 2014 competition," Fackender said. "We've put in countless hours and sleepless nights, and we've been hard at work on both snowmobiles since the end of competition in 2013."
For a complete schedule, or to learn more about the event, go to mtu.edu/snowmobile.