RCCC students convert cars to run on joules instead of juice

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 26, 2011

By Kathy Chaffin
Center for the Environment
SALISBURY — Students in the alternative fuels class at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College are working on converting two vehicles to electric.
The first, a 1983 Ford Ranger, was donated last year by automotive instructor Carl Smith, and the second, a 1995 Nissan 240 two-door sports car, was donated by Nissan North America in the late 1990s.
Powering the vehicles with electricity instead of gas will eliminate harmful emissions and therefore help to improve air quality.
Smith says he had intended to fix up his Ranger and drive it. “I actually had rebuilt the engine in it,” he says, “but due to time restraints, I had let it sit around.”
The fact that the Ranger had no air conditioning, power brakes or power steering made it easier for converting to an electric engine. “When you have air conditioning, power brakes and power steering, that puts an extra load on an electric motor,” Smith says. “It’s actually better when you don’t have them. You don’t have to set up more pulleys and more mechanical operations for it to work.”
Students in the alternative fuels class at the North Campus in Salisbury are receiving hands-on experience in converting an internal combustion engine to an electrical one. Smith, instructor for the class, says his students have been eager to work on the project. “I’ve even had some that were not in the alternative fuels class or taking it that helped out last semester,” he says, even though they received no credit for doing so.
Wade Vernon, program head of the automotive systems technology program, says students have been working on converting the vehicle for a little over a year. “So far, we have taken out the internal combustion engine,” he says. “We’ve installed the electric motor temporarily.”
The mounts for the electric engine still have to be fabricated, Vernon says, along with the mounts for all the batteries.
Summer students spent a few days “laying out all the electronic components so that we would have an idea as far as how to construct the control board,” Smith says.
“There’s a wide array of solenoids and safety devices that have to be laid out on a control board,” he says, “and they all have to be tied together. It has all the electronic controls on it, switches, basically like a small computer that will allow the motor to run.”
Vernon says the Nissan had reached the practical end of its life in an educational laboratory. In accordance with the donation agreement Rowan-Cabarrus has with Nissan North America, he says it was to be destroyed when it was no longer a viable teaching tool due to liability issues.
“Converting it to electric is a way of extending the educational life of the vehicle,” he says.
Students are just getting started on the Nissan. “We are presently taking out the internal combustion engine and the transmission,” he says.
The target date for completion of the Ranger and Nissan 240 is April 2012. The initial cost for converting the Ranger was estimated at between $5,000 and $6,000, but donations from Cloninger Ford Toyota, Rouzer Motor Parts and Napa Auto Parts (Benton Parts & Supply Co.) lowered that amount.
Though an estimate has not yet been figured for converting the Nissan 240 to electric, they hope to also offset that cost with donations.
Vernon says they plan to paint the Ranger with the school’s colors — royal blue and white. “As for the car, we’re kind of undecided at this point,” he says.
This fall, the alternative fuels class became a required course for graduation with an associate’s degree in applied science in automotive technology. The class covers such topics as fuel economy, exhaust emissions, EPA controls and limits and the diagnostics in today’s cars that are set up to control those, according to Vernon. The community college has a Toyota Prius so students can experience working on hybrids.
Dr. Carol Spalding, president of Rowan-Cabarrus, says the community college is committed “to building sustainable futures through the power of learning.”
“This project is one more way we’re showing our commitment to and demonstrating leadership in sustainability,” she says. “We know we need to be good stewards of both our natural resources and the environment, and I’m thrilled that our automotive program has taken on this electric car program.”