An award-winning hybrid SUV is not only a crucial first step toward energy independence in the United States, but it's also the handiwork of a design team from right here in the Delta.

A student team at Mississippi State University beat out 16 other universities across the United States and Canada with its “through the road parallel hybrid” which makes use of both a diesel engine and an electric motor.

The team's Chevrolet Equinox gets about 38 miles per gallon, about 48 percent more than a stock Equinox. The vehicle uses B20 soydiesel (20 percent soydiesel) instead of 100 percent petroleum diesel, which helps the vehicle produce less harmful emissions.

The diesel engine powers the front wheels and the electric motor powers the rear wheels, so that it functions as an all-wheel drive vehicle, according to student team member and MSU mechanical engineering student Matthew Doude. “The only thing that connects those two power sources is the road.”

This system “allowed us to downsize the internal combustion engine. So instead of a 6-cylinder gasoline engine that came in the vehicle, we were able to switch to a 4-cylinder biodiesel engine, which is far more efficient.”

The four-year competition, called Challenge X: Crossover to Sustainable Mobility, was sponsored by General Motors Corp., the U.S. Department of Energy and other government and industry leaders.

In 2004, 17 teams including MSU were selected to re-engineer an Equinox, a crossover sport utility vehicle, to minimize energy consumption, emissions, and greenhouse gases while maintaining or exceeding the vehicle's utility and performance.

Argonne National Laboratory, a Department of Energy research and development facility, provided competition management, team evaluation and technical and logistical support.

One reason the Equinox was chosen was because of the popularity of family-sized vehicles and the simultaneous demand to reduce energy consumption and vehicle emissions.

Year 1 focused on modeling, simulation, and testing of the vehicle powertrain and vehicle subsystems selected by each school. In June 2005, teams came together to undergo extensive judging and evaluation.

Teams that demonstrated a mastery of the key aspects of modeling their powertrain choice and constructing and controlling the powertrain received a donated Equinox after the June 2005 competition.

Years 2 and 3 required teams to develop and integrate their advanced powertrain and subsystems into the Equinox.

Awards are given after each year of the competition.

The objective of the competition was to transform the vehicle into a hybrid-type vehicle while still maintaining stock vehicle performance. The team worked on all aspects of the car, such as convenience, 0-60 performance, and driver comfort.

The MSU team won the third year round of competition and is preparing for the final year when the students are judged on further refinement to the vehicle. “At the end of this year, they want a vehicle that's production feasible that looks and operates like a car on the showroom floor,” Doude said.

In deciding to build a biodiesel engine, students analyzed all the fuels available for the competition, including soy biodiesel, ethanol and hydrogen, and determined that soy biodiesel “had the best compromise of fuel economy and good emissions. A side effect was that a lot of soy is produced in Mississippi,” Doude said.

“Obviously, the goal is to be energy independent in America, which will allow us to greatly reduce the amount of petroleum we must import. Hybrids are necessary stepping stones towards the vehicle architecture of the future, which may be hydrogen or all-electric vehicles.”

According to Doude, the build required “a lot of integration and packaging. We had to find ways to incorporate the new components of the vehicle without reducing cargo room or passenger capacity. We also had to integrate the systems so that the typical consumer wouldn't notice anything different. The driver turns the key and it cranks up — no additional switches or computer programming was required to operate the vehicle.”

The hybrid also makes use of regenerative braking, noted Doude. “When you step on the brake pedal, the electric motor also serves as a generator, so it recaptures the energy while you're stopping and stores it in the battery.”

Doude said students learned most of the basics for building the car at MSU, “but a lot of it was really specialized, so it took a lot of personal research and learning.”

The team put about 16,000 miles on the hybrid vehicle as part of the competition's outreach program. Team members drove the SUV to K-12 schools, community organizations and events to demonstrate the benefits of hybrid vehicles.

According to Amanda McAlpin, MSU Challenge X outreach coordinator and an MSU graduate student, these events have taken the students as far away as California, though most destinations are within Mississippi. The events are instrumental for getting the word out about hybrid vehicles.

“One of the misconceptions in our area about hybrid vehicles is they only come in one size — small. This vehicle is a regular SUV, one that you would enjoy driving. It helps people realize that hybrids are available in a lot of different models, and can suit just about any type of lifestyle.”

Challenge X has also proved helpful as a job-hunting tool for MSU students. Several students who have been part of the team have founds jobs after graduation through contacts they have made during the competition. Several students have taken jobs at General Motors.

Nearly 30 industry sponsors provided participating teams with math simulation software, automotive propulsion systems, fuels, emissions-control technologies, fuel cells and other tools and technologies to compete in the program. They also provide mentoring support to the students.

The selection process was open to all accredited engineering schools in the United States and Canada and began in September 2003. Mississippi State University learned that it was chosen to participate in the Challenge X competition in the summer of 2004.

The MSU team is made up of students majoring in computer science, communications, education, and all fields of engineering. This May, MSU students will apply for a follow-up competition, called Eco Car.