The Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team (HEVT) is heading off to General Motors (GM) University in Detroit, Mich., to present its design for a new type of sports utility vehicle.

At the end of their June 5-9 trip, the team of about 30 students hopes to receive a set of keys to a Chevrolet Equinox, which they plan to re-engineer into a hybrid SUV powered by electric motors and an engine fueled primarily by ethanol.

The Virginia Tech students are participating in the first leg of Challenge X, a three-year-long, national competition sponsored by GM and the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) that challenges engineering students from 17 universities to develop designs and technology for the next generation of energy-efficient, low-emissions vehicles.

“Our design is for a split-parallel hybrid system, which means that two electric motors and a small engine will drive the vehicle,” said Lawrence Dirks, a senior in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech and HEVT’s public relations coordinator. “The motors can be used as generators to recharge the battery pack when the vehicle is braking, a function called ‘regenerative braking.’”

The HEVT’s design for a hybrid Equinox includes modifying the engine so it can run on E85, a mixture of 85 percent ethanol — a renewable fuel typically distilled from corn — and 15 percent gasoline. The U.S. Senate recently passed a bill that offers tax credits for building fueling stations that supply E85, which is not only a cleaner-burning fuel but is significantly less expensive than unleaded gasoline.

“Among the benefits of our design is that E85 produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline, and our drive-train configuration enables the vehicle to operate at higher fuel efficiency,” Dirks said. One of the team’s goals is to reduce the total petroleum consumption of the SUV by 80 percent.

“This is a real-world design and development experience for our students with timelines, budget, and resource constraints, design compromises, and the use of new technology,” said Doug Nelson, HEVT faculty adviser and a professor of mechanical engineering.

To succeed during the three-year Challenge X competition, the team must produce a low-emissions, fuel-efficient Equinox that also retains all of its original performance factors. “Challenge X can help show the public that personal transportation can be improved,” said HEVT team leader Steven Boyd, a mechanical engineering graduate student. “Designs like our Equinox hybrid demonstrate that alternative fuels and advanced propulsion technologies can increase fuel economy and reduce emissions without sacrificing vehicle performance or utility.”

The HEVT has participated in similar national competitions since the mid-1990s, including the FutureCar and FutureTruck challenges. In the past the team created the world’s first student-designed fuel-cell-powered car and SUV.

During this year’s event in Detroit, the 17 Challenge X teams will present the details of their designs, which will undergo a series of technical evaluations. On June 9, each team with a successful design will receive keys to an Equinox, to be delivered in August. In addition, teams will receive $10,000 in seed money from GM and DoE. Each team also is eligible for up to $25,000 in automotive parts from GM and computer hardware and software from other industry sponsors. During the next two years, Challenge X teams will integrate their designs into the SUVs. Competitions charting the progress will be held during the summers of 2006 and 2007.

Joining Virginia Tech in Challenge X are Michigan Technological University, Mississippi State University, The Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, San Diego State University, Texas Tech University, University of Akron, University of California-Davis, University of Michigan, University of Tennessee, University of Texas at Austin, University of Tulsa, University of Waterloo, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and West Virginia University.

For more information, visit the Challenge X site at