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Alternative Fuel Lab Lets Students Build, Save Energy

By: Megan Williams
Posted: February 4, 2010

PHOTO: ISAT Students plan projectFew current issues have garnered as much attention as energy conservation. The idea of “going green” has become a national trend. With the always-volatile gas prices, many groups have begun studying alternative forms of transportation and alternative energy forms as an answer. One organization looking for solutions  is JMU’s Alternative Fuel Vehicle lab.

From electric bikes to super mileage vehicles, the lab, headed by Dr. Chris Bachman, director of the AFV Lab and associate professor of integrated science and technology, gives students an opportunity to get hands-on-experience, and consider how to answer one of the most important questions facing people today: How can we better conserve energy?

At any given time at the AFV lab a half dozen or so projects are in progress.

Baja Project

PHOTO: ISAT students work on baja projectIt looks like a go-kart on steroids. As half a dozen men raise the yellow, alternative vehicle up on risers to work on the Baja’s body, senior Tanner Cummings gives instructions.

“We have to shorten the frame because the way it turns is too wide,” Cummings said. “We’re trying to save on weight and save on space, the less we have the better.”

The Baja is just one of numerous projects being conducted by the student and faculty mechanics at the AFV lab, located on South Main Street about a half mile from campus.

The Baja project began two years ago by a former JMU student. Each year new students take up the project and make their own contributions to it. Cummings began working on the Baja last fall semester as extra credit, but then decided that fixing up the vehicle would make a good final project for ISAT.

“I started working really hard so we could make a competition,” Cummings said, “and when I learned how much work was involved, I decided to make this my capstone project.”

Cummings works in the AFV lab a couple of times a week. His goal is to get the Baja up and running before a competition in Rochester, N.Y., this spring. It’s one of three in the country that races vehicles like the Baja, and other alternative fuel vehicles.

“You’ll see anything from zero-emission snowmobiles, to the Baja, to super mileage, to formula one,” Cummings said of the competition, “all kinds of small scale vehicles, and all in promotion of the engineering aspect of giving students a feel for how it is to build a vehicle.”
But there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to the Baja before it can face other vehicles in a race. Cummings and other students working on the Baja are attempting to make it as efficient as possible.  Cummings has hope that the Baja will be race-ready come spring. He associates his work ethic with his desire to learn and to apply what he knows.

“You learn a whole lot when you’re forced to learn it, like when you have to make something work right,” Cummings said. “That’s the test. Instead of receiving a bad grade, you just receive no results and go back to the drawing board to restart. We’re studying to do the things.”

Having Support

Fortunately, Cummings and his fellow student mechanics don’t have to rely on just each other to get things done.  Dr. Chris Bachmann is always available to lend a hand to students and is very enthusiastic about the strides the lab has made in the realm of alternative fuel vehicles.

Dan Drumheller, a JMU graduate and owner of the manufacturing shop, Valley Precision in Waynesboro, has been assisting with the Baja project for the past two years. He mostly dispenses advice to anyone who needs it.

“That’s what I’m helping them with, how to machine the parts, how to put them together, and they’re doing the academic stuff with what they’re learning in their classes,” Drumheller said. “It’s a good place for me to have my input.”

Besides needing the know-how to build vehicles like the Baja, it is also students’ responsibility to raise the money needed for parts, tools and other expenses. For the Baja this meant raising about $15,000. They work to meet this cost through bake sales, concession stands, and clean up after sporting events. Donations from local companies such as Valley Precision have also helped offset the costs.

“It’s an expensive project but the students get a lot of teamwork skills and mechanic skills,” Drumheller said.

Electric Motorcycle

Besides the Baja, a group of students are building an electric motorcycle.

The project began with a 1960s motorcycle from Sears. It was stripped down completely; the only parts that remained were the frame and the tires. They decided to make the bike electric because that’s what they were being taught in their classes: the principles of electricity. They began researching batteries, electric motors and other things that would make the bike run. Now almost a year later, the bike is done and the students are just working on making