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SIUC RESEARCH Electric Vehicle
Programming the future — Sean Neil of Chicago, left, and Michael Ahner of Oak Forest, seniors in electronic systems technologies, write the program for various elements that will be on an LCD display board of the zero-emission electric vehicle. Photo by Jeff Garner. (courtesy)

With the increasing focus on alternative-fuel vehicles, a project at Southern Illinois University Carbondale looks to pave the way in helping the local environment.

With the assistance of the University’s Green Fund, students in the Electronic Systems Technologies (EST) and Automotive Technology programs are spending this semester building an electric vehicle. The goal is to return an existing, but inoperable campus grounds utility vehicle to service as a zero-emission electric vehicle.

If the project is successful, Ralph F. Tate, associate professor in Electronic Systems Technologies and interim director of the School of Information Systems and Applied Technologies, believes it will be possible to convert other University-owned vehicles from gas to battery powered and make the campus more environmentally friendly.

“Most of these vehicles never leave campus so range is not an issue,” said Tate, who is project director. “If you were to convert some of the vans or other work vehicles, they would have all the capabilities they have now except you would never have to put fuel in them and you would just plug them in at night.”

The Bobcat utility vehicle resembles a mix of an all-terrain vehicle and golf cart. The vehicle will be in use at the University’s vermicomposting facility, or the “worm farm.”

Students began gutting the vehicle’s internal combustion engine and everything connected to it in late February. Four Electronic Systems Technologies students are in the project as part of an independent study course. Part of the work includes researching systems to determine the required components and also design the instrumentation hardware and software.

It’s easy to understand the increasingly important relationship between students in both programs if you take a quick glance underneath the hood of your new car or truck. The mechanic who is handy with a hammer can no longer rely on that tool for a quick fix when something goes wrong in today’s vehicles.

Omar Trinidad, an assistant professor in the Automotive Technology program, expects conversions to electric-powered vehicles will expand future opportunities for automotive technology students. Chevrolet, Mitsubishi, Toyota and Nissan have their own electric vehicles, said Trinidad, who along with associate professor Sean Boyle is also involved with the project.

Trinidad sees three benefits for automotive technology students, beginning with the chance to collaborate with another program on campus.

“We have such a deep and rich amount of resources within our community and University that we actually haven’t tapped into yet,” he said. “Having the automotive and electronics programs come together helps them learn about what we do and helps us learn about what they do,”

Students will also learn how to interact with people who have expertise in a specific area — introducing them to real-world applications and situations. Technical-minded people and engineering-minded people sometimes work well together, but knowing how to communicate with one another is vital, he said.

The project also gives students real-world examples and applications for electric vehicles, Trinidad said. The utility vehicle, or UTV, will use state-of-the-art Lithium Iron Phosphate battery technology, Tate said. The battery chemistry is the safest and most efficient available and will result in a compact, lightweight and efficient power source, Tate said.

Retrofitting an inoperable gas-powered electric vehicle into an all-electric vehicle will save the University money, Tate said. He anticipates the project will cost $10,000; a new gas-powered vehicle costs about $12,000, and new electric UTVs cost about $13,000.

Because there is no need for tune-ups, oil changes, and several other basic mechanical fixes, Tate expects maintenance and operational costs will be lower. The battery system will last about eight years, with the cost to charge the battery estimated at 50 cents per day, he said.

Sean Neil and Michael Ahner, both seniors in electronic systems technologies, were recently writing programs for the various elements that will be on the LCD display board. They are studying the various kinds of processors, motors, batteries, charging units and sensors available to select the correct ones for the project.

“You have to research it and determine what is compatible and if it will work before you try because selecting the wrong component here can mean failure down the road,” said Neil, who is from Chicago.

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