KU students driving sustainable motoring forward

ku-beetleA group of University of Kansas students is giving solar-powered EV charging, electric cars, and alternative fuel motoring a boost .

Every senior at the University of Kansas is required to do a senior design project. For many students interested and/or majoring in Mechanical Engineering, joining the EcoHawks is an obvious choice.

“We’re committed to promoting sustainability in five key areas through automotive and energy related projects,” says this year’s EcoHawks President Mickey Clemon of the two-year-old organization. “The five areas are economics, education, energy, environment, and ethics. Our projects, outreach activities and events all revolve around these issues.”

Incorporating solar energy
Solar-powered EV fueling became a reality at EcoHawks’ headquarters in April 2010, although the story leading up to the EcoHawks plugging into solar-charged driving began earlier.

In 2009, Bryan Strecker joined the KU EcoHawks for his senior design project. Christopher Depcik, one of EcoHawks’ co-founders, had come to one of his mechanical engineering classes the previous spring to recruit students, and mentioned creating a solar-powered fueling station.

“Solar energy always interested me,” says Strecker. “EcoHawks was an option to have hands-on experience with it. On the first day of class, [Depcik] let us know that he had only had one class as an undergrad on solar energy, so we were going to have to do the research.”

Strecker took on the leading role of researching to implement a large-scale solar fueling station, which consisted of 2×180 Watt Schuco solar panels and 4×185 Watt Kyocera solar panels, and which puts out approximately 1.1kW of solar energy. This solar system was installed by mid-April of 2010 and was being used to charge the VW Beetle Electric Vehicle by the end of April.


My students push me to learn new ideas and concepts about a field they are passionate about.
–Christopher Depcik, U. of Kansas Assistant Professor & KU Ecohawks Co-Founder

During the 2008-2009 academic year, the EcoHawks worked on a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle. This project was completed by the 2009-2010 EcoHawks. The students converted the Beetle to a plug-in hybrid that is charged either through a generator running on cooking oil biodiesel or from the new solar energy charging station.

‘GMC JimmE-V’
The EcoHawks are currently working to convert an old GMC Jimmy sport-utility vehicle to run on electricity, with incorporated resources from wind energy. Students refer to the SUV as the JimmE-V. When finished, the JimmE-V will be used by KU libraries to deliver mail.

“The long-term goal of our organization is to develop a fuel neutral, 500-miles-per-gallon equivalent vehicle,” says Clemon. “The JimmE-V is one step in this process.”

Depcik describes many of the club’s students as mechanical engineers who lead projects in automotive/energy direction that they want to explore. Student volunteers come from many disciplines to help with projects and work with the club.

Depcik, who has always had an interest in renewable energy, took courses on solar energy and energy conservation during his undergraduate studies at the University of Florida. During his graduate studies at the University of Michigan, he began to realize the powerful influence automobiles have on energy in the United States.

When he came to teach at the University of Kansas, Depcik wanted to give students the opportunity to explore vehicles more. The students he found are extremely driven in making the right decisions now and for the future, he notes.

“They push me to learn new ideas and concepts about a field they are passionate about,” says Depcik of his EcoHawks students.

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EcoHawks help the environment
Strecker says he joined the EcoHawks because he has always been concerned about the environment but had never known what to do about it.

“The EcoHawks project was a way to get hands-on experience with solar energy all the while dabbling in other areas (bio-diesel applications, this year’s wind tests, sustainable infrastructures, the list goes on),” he says.

One of the main goals of the EcoHawks is to inform and get K-12 students to start thinking about engineering and sustainable technology.

“Our current energy solutions cannot keep up with the increasing demand,” says Strecker. “And something needs to be done about this.”

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