Electric Snowmobiles Could Rev Up Cleaner Snow Travel

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Electric snowmobile prototype by University of Wisconsin, Madison. Photo: Clean Snowmobile Challenge

A typical mid-winter's day in Yellowstone National Park used to belie all notions you may harbor of a peaceful, quiet mountain hideaway. “People would go in and wait for the Old Faithful to blow,” says Jay Meldrum,  Clean Snowmobile Challenge co-organizer and director of the Keweenaw Research Center of Michigan Tech in Houghton, Michigan. Then, once the display was over, “you'd have up to 1,000 snowmobiles starting up all at once.” This would create its own spectacle—one made, not of sulfur, but of blue smoke, rich in carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HC), spewing from the snowmobile's two-stroke engines.

The CO and HC emissions from snowmobiles on a typical winter day dwarfed those coming from cars in Yellowstone on a typical July day. Eventually, the park prohibited snowmobiles with two-stroke engine and limits on the total number of sleds that could enter the park each day. In response, the Environmental Protection Agency set emissions standards designed to force snowmobile manufacturers to build cleaner-burning engines.

For years, snowmobile manufacturers—Arctic Cats, BRP, Polaris, and Yamaha—have sought out university engineering students to help them advance their products to meet or exceed the increasingly stringent EPA standards while also keeping the snowmobiles fast and fun to drive. They'll do so again next month, when the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) holds the 12th annual Clean Snowmobile Challenge, where teams of engineering and design students from universities around the country will show off their low-emissions and no-emissions prototypes. Here's how the eco-smackdown may cut down future snowmobile emissions.

Charged up over EV sleds
Five of this year's submissions are electric snowmobiles. The goal of the electric snowmobile competition is to develop a machine that researchers at the Summit Station in Greenland can use to go onto the icecap and take environmental samples, for climate change studies. These researchers can't drive vehicles with hydrocarbon emissions out to take these samples, says Meldrum. “Even a small amount of vehicular emissions can skew [sample] data,” he says. “With an electric snowmobile, they can drive out 10 miles, take samples, and then return.”

Past winning entries in the electric snowmobile category have been brought to Greenland for further testing and refinement.

Those 20-odd miles represent the upper range of the prototype EV snowmobiles that students have developed at Clean Snowmobile Challenges in the past. Last year, the University of Madison won the zero emissions category with a prototype that could eek only 23 miles on a full charge. This state of the technology means that electric snowmobiles are not yet candidates for recreational use. Indeed, there is yet to be an electric snowmobile made for commercial use. But as the technology advances, that's likely to change.

Aside from arctic researchers, ski resorts are eager to begin using electric snowmobiles. Zero emissions means no foul air wafting past skiers, and many sleds used by ski resort staff don't need long range.

Stevens Pass Winter Resort in Washington State is keen to get some electric snowmobiles into its fleet, as part of its larger effort to reduce emissions. “Over the past eight years, we have significantly reduced our use of snowmobiles,” says Ross Freeman, environment and sustainability manager at the resort. “We are also in the middle of an upgrade project to retire all two-stroke machines.” By this summer, he expects most of the fleet will be comprised of four-stroke snowmobiles that are much cleaner burning and quieter.

Because staff generally travel fewer than 10 miles each day, and at speeds of 35 miles per hour or less, the capabilities of today's EV snowmobiles could be sufficient for most needs.

Meldrum says an electric vehicle made a public appearance at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, where it was used to shuttle guests around the base area, and he recently heard from a ski resort in Austria that would like to test out an electric sled, as well.

Still, the electric snowmobile market is a long way from development. “Would folks in Alaska want an EV snowmobile? I suppose they would. But 20 miles is a pretty limited range,” says Meldrum.

In the short term, look for electric snowmobiles that also sport a small internal combustion engine that would be used to power up a depleted battery. This could save a stranded rider and make the idea of a electric sled more palatable.

— Mary Catherine O'Connor

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