Clarkson University (New York) was the overall winner in the 2011 Clean Snowmobile Challenge, a collegiate design competition put on by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and hosted by Michigan Technological University. This year's competition was billed as "the greenest yet," with a record number of electric snowmobiles participating. The event was held March 7-12 at MTU's Keweenaw Research Center in Houghton, Michigan. Seventeen student teams competed in the zero emissions and internal combustion categories.

Like a winter version of the World Solar Challenge, the SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge pushes entrants to develop eco-friendly transportation for the real world. The student teams that participate in the Clean Snowmobile Challenge must design a touring snowmobile for groomed-trail riding. The snowmobiles must be cost-effective and comfortable for the rider. Because modern snowmobiles are already designed to meet the current standards for emissions and noise, the teams are expected to improve on the characteristics of the base machine that they start with.

Anne Hawn, team captain for Clarkson, cited the team's preparation and hard work in the success of their machine based on a Polaris 600RR. In addition to achieving first overall, her team claimed third place in the zero emissions category and took top awards for fuel economy, quietest snowmobile, best handling, and best ride.

In the internal combustion category, the students take a stock sled and re-engineer it to reduce emissions, decrease noise, and maintain or boost handling and performance. The machines must be designed to run on flex fuel, with a wide range of ethanol content. The competitors weren't told what fuel they would be using until the competition began. The machines are then judged on noise, emissions, and fuel economy, as well as on handling and real-world performance.

The challenge rules set the minimum performance expectations for a trail snowmobile as a sled that will go 100 miles (161 km) without refueling and can attain a trail speed of 45 mph (72 kph). Additionally, the machine must be able to cover 500 feet (152 m) in 12 seconds or less.

In the zero-emissions category, the snowmobiles are judged on how far they can travel on a charge and how much load they can pull. The zero-emissions class is sponsored by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which hopes to use electric snowmobiles for conducting research in fragile Arctic locations. In past years, the winning electric snowmobile in the Clean Snowmobile Challenge has been further field tested at the NSF's Summit Station research location in Greenland.

During the judging, a team earns points on a weighted basis for range, acceleration, handling, and so on. Estimated retail price is also considered, along with subjective handling. There is even a bonus if the sled does not require maintenance during the competition.

The tests can be tough on the competitors. The first event for the internal combustion sleds was the endurance run, which included 38 miles (61 km) on the Keweenaw Research Center's test track plus 62 miles (100 km) cross-country riding. Nine snowmobiles started from the center, but only three machines successfully finished the run.

While the internal combustion snowmobiles were on the endurance run, the battery-powered sleds in the zero-emissions division competed in a range test to see who could travel the farthest on a single charge. The University of Wisconsin-Madison machine, based on a Polaris IQ Shift chassis, won with a distance of 21 miles (34 km).

For 2011, the Clean Snowmobile Challenge organizers wanted to reduce the carbon footprint of the competition itself. While electric snowmobiles may have no emissions, their batteries must be charged with electricity that in the past had been generated by coal-fired plants. The Keweenaw Research Center installed a solar panel at their facility, and over the past year banked enough energy to charge all of the zero-emission sleds. The center plans to install more solar panels in the future.

The Clean Snowmobile Challenge grew out of concerns about the environmental impact of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming. Obviously snowmobiles are used in the winter, and the cold dense ambient air does not disperse the exhaust emissions as rapidly, which leads to locally higher concentrations of pollutants. The first challenge was held in 1999 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with colleges participating from across the United States and Canada. In 2003 the challenge moved to Michigan, hosted by the Keweenaw Research Center (KRC), just north of the Michigan Technological University campus.

Clarkson placed first overall, as well as taking first place in the internal-combustion division. The University of Wisconsin-Madison team took overall second, plus first in the zero-emissions category. Visit the MTU website for more information about the SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge and a complete list of teams and awards.

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