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Silent Running
JMU students build biodiesel-electric cart to serve national park

German exchange student Fredrik Hutter demonstrates the new electric- and biodiesel-powered ATV for Shenandoah National Park officials. More photos below.

James Madison University turned over the keys to a hybrid, all-terrain vehicle built by four students to officials of Shenandoah National Park March 20. The converted golf cart runs on electric power from four 12-volt batteries charged by a generator that runs on biodiesel fuel.

Since the late 1990s, James Madison University's Alternative Fuel Vehicle Lab and department of integrated science and technology have collaborated on educating students through hands-on projects building vehicles that use alternative and renewable fuels, including biodiesel fuel, an organically derived substitute for petroleum diesel.

In spring 2004, a project to transform an old gasoline-powered golf cart into a useful biodiesel/electric hybrid, all-terrain vehicle was undertaken, with support from JMU'S Facilities Management and ISAT departments and funded by a grant from the University-National Park Energy Partnership Project.

As U-NPEPP requires its projects be undertaken in collaboration with a national park, JMU partnered with nearby Shenandoah National Park, which has its headquarters in Luray, Va. So that the ATV would be a useful service vehicle, discussions with SNP personnel were essential in the design.

Four students participated in the project from spring 2004 to spring 2006 when the ATV was completed, demonstrated and transferred to Shenandoah National Park. For two of those students, the ATV served as a senior thesis project required for the bachelor's degree in integrated science and technology. The other two students were Diplom candidates from the Hochschule fuer Technik und Wirtschaft (HTW) des Saarlands, located in Saarbruecken, Germany, performing a required practicum that takes place following the completion of coursework required for a degree in mechanical engineering, in their seventh semester. In this regard, the project was also a successful experience in the growing relationship between JMU and the HTW des Saarlands in Germany.

The vehicle is a series hybrid, as opposed to a parallel hybrid, which is the technology used in most commercially available over-the-road hybrids (i.e., Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid). The simpler series hybrid is essentially an electric vehicle powered by an on-board diesel generator that charges a 48V bank of batteries. The operator can decide, within limits, whether to travel with the generator on or in electric silence, which is useful in park areas where noise should be limited in consideration of visitors or wildlife. The batteries can be fully charged before application, or they can be charged while the vehicle is in use.

The choice of biodiesel was influenced by successful trials in several national parks over the last decade, including Shenandoah, as well as by its availability. Though the vehicle is capable of operating on petroleum diesel fuel, JMU designers hope park officials will use biodiesel blends at all times.

Biodiesel has a high lubricity that protects metal parts and extends the lifetime of diesel engines. Its emissions profile is much more benign than petroleum diesel. It is a renewable, non-toxic, biodegradable fuel that does not contribute to the load of fossil carbon in the atmosphere, and so does not contribute to global warming. It can be made locally so that the energy used in transporting fossil diesel from domestic or foreign oil fields is saved, and it contributes to national energy independence.

The multipurpose ATV is designed to transport up to two passengers and cargo. The AC generator has an accessible power plug-in panel for power tools, transforming the ATV into a portable power station. There are two cargo beds for transport of tools, power tools, spray tanks, mulch, etc. The front axle was designed to accommodate a removable winch, which is supplied with the vehicle. The recommended use of the vehicle is for light duty in dry conditions over relatively smooth ground at low speeds.

Support from the community for this project was received from Doug’s Small Engine Repair in Bridgewater, Va., which sold JMU the original 1987 golf cart at something less than its market value, and from Kee Auto Body, who donated the paint job.

— Information provided by Carollyn S. Oglesby, director of the JMU Alternative Fuel Vehichle Program and ISAT Scholar in Residence

Hutter discusses the engine compartment.

alternative fuel cart
Park official gets ready for a test drive.

alternative fuel cart
Running on battery power alone, the cart makes nary a sound.

alternative fuel cart
A detachable winch is among the cart's features.