Snowmobiles long ago replaced dogsleds for hauling people and cargo in the polar regions, particularly in remote research stations and field camps such as those on the Greenland Ice Sheet and in Antarctica.
But for all their utility, snowmobiles are not very environmentally friendly.
So, on March 19, 2007, four National Science Foundation (NSF)-supported teams will compete in the SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge in Houghton, Mich., to produce a zero-emissions snow vehicle. The challenge attracts teams of undergraduate engineering students from across North America with the goal of designing a snowmobile with lower environmental impact, less noise, fewer emissions and a lighter footprint--all without sacrificing the performance snowmobile enthusiasts love.
The NSF-funded projects are coordinated by VECO Polar Resources, NSF's logistics contractor for Arctic research. The agency awarded the group $10,000 to support the four teams.
The competition grew from the demand for cleaner snowmobiles in national and state parks and forests. One alternative to restricting or banning snowmobiles on public lands is to find appropriate technological solutions to noise and pollution problems.
Now in its fifth year, the challenge is a competition for college and university student members of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) to encourage young engineers to design quieter machines that produce low emissions, but still "smoke" in the performance department. The students are given the opportunity to apply their engineering skills to a difficult problem, working in teams to develop real-world solutions.
Making the machines more environmentally friendly is both practical and in keeping with the foundation's basic mission.
"NSF's mandate as a federal agency is to support integration of science and engineering and education," noted Renee Crain, who coordinates Arctic logistics for NSF's Office of Polar Programs. "We also take very seriously our stewardship of the environment where our grantees conduct research. Investing in this competition helps NSF achieve our goals in engineering, education and environmental stewardship."
NSF operates several research stations in remote, pristine environments, including three stations and numerous field camps in Antarctica and a research station on the summit of Greenland's ice cap. Cleaner snowmobiles may benefit science in these places, where locally produced snowmobile emissions can interfere with data from instruments sampling global atmospheric constituents, global transport of soot, and other highly sensitive measurements.
As a result, NSF has been working on several fronts to make operations more efficient and clean at these research outposts. At Summit Station in Greenland, for example, long-range plans include an incremental increase in renewable and alternative energy systems, including an oxygenated fuels program to reduce emissions, wind-power generation systems now in development, and an electric vehicle program. Results from the Clean Snowmobile Challenge may be incorporated into the plan.
Summit Station is the site of numerous national and international research projects and the NSF-sponsored Greenland Environmental Observatory, or GEOSummit, which monitors environmental conditions year round. Contest winners will travel this summer to Summit Station, courtesy of the NSF, to provide a real-world test of the technology. Renewable energy manager Tracy Dahl from VECO will participate in judging the contest and escort the winning teams to Greenland.
At Summit Station they will spend several days in one of the planet's most demanding environments, testing their snowmobiles in field conditions. They also will meet with world-class scientists to discuss research on such topics as global climate change.
"It will be exciting to take these young engineers to a place as unsual as the Greenland ice cap. It is a great opportunity for them to participate first-hand in supporting globally important research, and the experience can spark a passion for knowledge that will last a lifetime," said Dahl.
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