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Randolph, VT
Contact: Bill McGrath


There's a smell of french fries in the air around Vermont Technical College this afternoon, but not from the cafeteria - it's from the exhaust of a vehicle powered by fuel made from recycled vegetable oil.

A pumpkin-orange 1990 Chevrolet pickup truck, dubbed the "Greaseltron," employs a technology called a hybrid. The truck has been converted to run on electricity and a generator on the back of the truck creates electricity from a fuel called biodiesel. Biodiesel is a non-petroleum based diesel fuel replacement that the students make from waste oil donated by area restaurants. "We've been making this fuel for about a year now, and we've used it in the truck as well as in a home furnace quite successfully," said Donald Winans, President of the Alternative Energy Club at Vermont Technical College. Students built the truck to learn about the latest transportation technology as well as to compete in the Tour De Sol.

The "Greaseltron" is the latest creation from VTC's Alternative Energy Club, and students are scurrying around preparing it for a road rally called "The Tour De Sol: The Great American Green Transportation Festival." The event showcases the latest "clean and green" transportation technologies, featuring entries from major auto manufacturers, government agencies, and private teams like VTC. This year's route goes from Waterbury, CT, to Boston, MA, via Albany, NY. Several stops along the route allow visitors to see the vehicles close up.

In previous years, the club (formerly known as the Solar Car Club) has built and raced a vehicle powered by sunlight and electricity called the "MooRocco". It was a 1984 VW Scirocco famous for its white body and green cow spots.

The rally begins Saturday, May 19, in Waterbury, CT. Details on the route and a schedule of stops are available at the club's website at: .

Biodiesel fuel is made from vegetable oil, and can be used in diesel vehicles without modification. It can also be blended with diesel fuel in any proportion. It costs the students around $0.60 a gallon to make, but that doesn't take into account their labor. "It takes a little work to make it, but the end result is worth it," said Oliver Piluski, a student in the Electro-Mechanical program at VTC whose senior project was a small processor that makes biodiesel from vegetable oil unattended.

The group is nervous about the upcoming event considering the timeline they've had to build their vehicle...they started in January. The next challenge for the team is the stringent technical tests done by rally organizers in Waterbury, CT on Saturday. The team will file a daily journal of events on their website at: .

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE- Friday, May 26, 2000 12:02:58 PM
VTC's MooRocco Goes to Washington

William Busha, Staff Writer

It was a bi-partisan show of political support in the nation's capital last Friday when the Vermont Technical College solar car club rolled into town. With the Washington press corps paying close attention, Vermont's two U.S. Senators greeted the Vermont contingent and took the club's vehicle for a spin around the grounds of the Capital Building.

"Senator Jeffords was behind the wheel, with Senator Leahy as a passenger," said club president Jeff Laughlin, a second-year computer engineering technology major from Williston. "Leahy had taken a solo test drive earlier." That morning, club members also met with Rep. Bernie Sanders to explain the tour and discuss the potential for development of alternative-fuel vehicles.

The 1984 VW Scirocco, which the club converted to electric power in 1999, is painted white and decorated with an eyecatching, Holstein-esque pattern by Vermont artist Sabra Field. It was one of the 48 vehicles driven to Washington from New York City as part of the Tour de Sol, a six-day road rally that is considered a championship event for electric vehicles nationwide.

The VTC entry almost didn't make it out of Randolph. During a final test drive on the day before departure, the vehicle's new amp controller failed, leaving the team scrambling for a replacement. Although the part was covered by warranty, there wasn't time to get a replacement. Instead, they re-installed the old converter, which was still serviceable albeit with a significant loss of performance. According to Laughlin, club member Bill McGrath of Randolph counseled his colleagues to stay focused on the week ahead: "The most important thing is that we don't treat this as a crisis," he advised. The worst impact it can have is if we let it become a distraction from our other preparations."

With the controller problem fixed temporarily, MooRocco drove onto a tow dolly under its own power on Thursday evening for the trip to New York, arriving at 4:00 a.m. The first day was spent camping out at the New York Hall of Science park---under the Brooklyn Bridge---where the vehicle was subjected to stationary testing, a mandatory pre-race inspection. The check revealed a problem with the emergency brake, requiring the on-site installation of new rear brake pads.

For the next two days, the event moved to the South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan for more test drives, displays, and technical testing. MooRocco qualified for the race, but with a disappointing pole position that club members blamed on the poor responsiveness of the old controller. But by the beginning of the 300-mile road trip on Monday, MooRocco was enjoying the pep of a brand new controller that the club had been able to borrow for the race.

Bill McGrath, a 1999 computer engineering technology graduate of VTC and now an instructor in the college's recently introduced E-Commerce program, spent some of his free time during the weekend helping fix a problem with the University of Maine vehicle---an effort that earned the Vermont Tech club a meal at a Chinese restaurant, compliments of the Maine contingent, and which helped earn the Vermonters a special Sportsmanship Award at the event's closing ceremony. Maine's Solar Black Bear went on to finish first in its category.

"They would have been out of the competition without Bill's help," says Laughlin. "He was the only person at the event with the expertise to solve the problem." McGrath has been invited back to next year's event by race organizers to serve as the Tour's technical consultant to all entries.

For the next four days, the 50-odd vehicles made their way 300 miles down the Eastern seaboard, traveling through New Jersey and Maryland before reaching the finish line at the nation's Capital Building. Driving MooRocco were Jay Orzell of Castleton, a second-year mechanical engineering technology student, and Scott McGrath of Randolph, who like his brother of Bill is a 1999 graduate of the computer engineering program and who is now the college network administrator.

Along the way, the entries provided spectator demonstrations, visited schools, and participated in a variety of rally tests. The event's scoring system awarded points for fuel efficiency, emissions, acceleration, handling, reliability, and driving range.

When all the tallies were in, VTC's MooRocco registered considerable improvement over last year's results. Handling was improved after the installation of new custom springs. Driving range was increased from 50 miles to 75. And acceleration was improved dramatically, thanks to the new controller. "This car is capable of 95 MPH with the new controller---but of course that's just a guess," he adds quickly with a smile.

The time required to recharge the batteries was reduced dramatically during the race as well, thanks to a combination of ingenuity and seat-of-the-pants engineering. "This was really cool," says Laughlin. "After the second day of the race we had a think-tank discussion at a fast food restaurant, and the result was a design for a special charger that would recharge the batteries super-fast."

The next day club members bought the parts--- a plastic salad bowl, a metal colandar, and a Tupperware tub---off the shelf of a local store for about $35. Using electrical components they had on hand, they proceeded to construct the new charger. "It's a sizeable contraption," says Laughlin, "and looks like something out of a science fiction movie. But it works great. We reduced the charging time from eight hours down to two.

In addition to student-built entries, the Tour de Sol showcased products from leading automobile manufacturers including the Honda Insight, a gasoline-electric hybrid now available to consumers. Daimler Chrysler captured a lot of attention with the pollution-free Epic minivan, and the New York Power Authority sent an electric school bus. The event is organized by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association and is sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, American Honda Motor Company, Daimler-Chrysler, Toyota, and other businesses in the solar power industry.

The VTC club published a day-by-day journal of the Tour on it's Internet web site, which can be seen at And they already have big plans for next year. "We hope to have a new vehicle fully assembled and ready to race in ten months," says Laughlin. "It's a large project that will require a lot of student work to accomplish."

And free labor is important, since the club, which includes 11 students and two faculty members, must raise its own funds. An upgrade to new batteries alone can cost $30,000, Laughlin says, and the club is considering applying for a National Science Foundation grant and will continue to look for sponsors.

He envisions a new vehicle that will be an advanced platform for electric and hybrid electric vehicle technology. "We plan to experiment with new battery charger designs, renewable bio-diesel fueled engines, and solar charging system technology," he says. "We are also continuing to develop our state-of-the art electronic monitoring systems."

In the meantime, the one-of-a-kind MooRocco has been put out to pasture in Randolph for the summer, sipping sunshine to keep its batteries charged and ambling up and down Route 66 between the college and the village.

Last Modified: Tuesday, May 15, 2001 by Scott McGrath