McGill University’s electric snowmobile on an endurance run. (Photo by Kevin Clemens/Midwest Energy News)

Each year in early March, teams of college students from across the country converge on Houghton, Michigan to compete in the Society of Automotive Engineers Clean Snowmobile Challenge.

The competition, which was first held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and included events in Yellowstone National Park, was developed to allow universities to address issues of noise and gaseous emissions from snowmobiles. In 2003, the competition moved to the 500-acre winter test track at the Keweenaw Research Center at Michigan Technological University — in an area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula renowned for more than 300 inches of yearly snowfall and its excellent snowmobiling.

This year, with event sponsorship from the largest snowmobile manufacturers and a host of other corporate interests, sixteen college teams took on the challenge.

The majority of the teams compete in the Internal Combustion low emissions category. These snowmobiles must run on a biofuel blend that can contain between 10 and 39 percent ethanol. To ensure the sleds are truly flex-fuel vehicles, the teams are not told the actual content of ethanol in the fuel until after the event has ended. The machines are tested for design, noise, exhaust emissions, fuel economy, cold start ability, acceleration and handling. The objective is to develop concepts and ideas that can help improve current snowmobiles.

In 2006, a Zero Emissions category was added to the competition. Tracy Dahl, who works for Polar Field Services, a company that does contract services for the National Science Foundation’s arctic programs, convinced organizers to add the category because of the need for zero emission vehicles in atmospheric arctic research.

“The electric division of this competition was started in response to our specific needs at Summit Station in Greenland where the scientific focus is on atmospheric research,” said Dahl. “If you ride up to a sampling site on a regular snowmobile, everything goes off the charts and you have to throw out that data set.”

The winning zero-emissions snowmobile frequently is shipped to Greenland for use at Summit Station and the captain of the winning team is invited to spend a few days in Greenland to explain the machine to the support staff.

“The machine will stay for typically three months during the course of the summer research season and it has been a great success,” Dahl said.

Greg Smiarowski, captain of Michigan Tech’s electric snowmobile team. (Photo by Kevin Clemens/Midwest Energy News)

Beyond the development of new technologies, the Clean Snowmobile Challenge gives engineering students a chance to work on a project that stretches their design, fabrication and problem-solving skills. “You get to do a bunch of hands-on work and also problem solving and I love to do that,” said Greg Smiarowski, a senior at Michigan Tech who has worked on the team’s electric sled for two years.

Five teams entered zero emission machines this year. Although there has been continuous progress since the first electric sleds arrived in 2006, building one is still a daunting project.

Last year’s winner, the University of Wisconsin-Madison withdrew before this year’s competition began when it was determined that their battery pack didn’t meet the strict rules of the competition. The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology also had to drop out, Michigan Tech’s entry had a series of electrical problems and the University of Alaska in Fairbanks had burned out one motor and had their spare shipped in overnight from Alaska. The team from McGill University from Montreal had few problems and was actually the only team to officially finish.

An electric snowmobile, while not as eerily quiet as an electric motorcycle, is quite a bit less noisy than a gasoline powered machine. Most of the noise comes from the motion of the track on the snow and over the rollers as the sled moves forward.

Range capability of electric snowmobiles is still their biggest drawback. Last year the University of Wisconsin-Madison set a record with a range of 20.8 miles. In 2012, the McGill team went almost 8 miles on its fully charged batteries while the resurrected Fairbanks entry with its replacement motor unofficially went over 16 miles (the range requirements in Greenland are actually quite modest as the test sites are just a mile or so from the base).

As battery technology progresses, the range and performance of electric snowmobiles will continue to improve. The SAE is talking about adding a hybrid class to the Clean Snowmobile Challenge – creating a daunting technical challenge of combining both combustion and electric technology onto a small platform. But that’s what the competition is all about — finding solutions now may result in practical and more efficient snowmobiles in the future.

Kevin Clemens is a freelance journalist and author who trained as an engineer and environmental educator and has been an editor and contributor at some of the transportation industry’s most influential magazines. He lives in Lake Elmo, Minnesota.