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Greenspeed Chases Landspeed Records With Vegetable Oil-Fueled Truck

By:    Published 6:39 am / August 5, 2011

Dave Schenker builds the twin turbo system under the hood of Greenspeed's 1998 Chevrolet S-10 pick-up truck. The parts were provided by partners Turbonetics Turbochargers and Vibrant Performance.

Fewer people have gone 200 mph on land than have stood atop Mount Everest.

And if the members of Greenspeed, a most unusual student club at Boise State, can get their hands on a few more key car parts in coming days, they may join that club and stand alone as builders of the world’s fastest vegetable oil-fueled vehicle.

The five-member team of engineering graduate and undergraduate students will face their trial Aug. 13-19 at Speed Week, an annual rite for hotrodders of all types put on every summer at the famed Bonneville Salt Flats in Northwest Utah. Greenspeed will compete in the diesel truck class and the team expects to claim a new land speed record for vegetable oil-fueled vehicles (currently 98-mph). But their true target is the existing 215-mph record for petroleum-fueled trucks in their class – putting their vegetable oil-fueled truck on par with those burning diesel fuel.

“That’s what this is all about. Raising awareness about alternative fuels,” said Dave Schenker, co-founder of Greenspeed and a junior mechanical engineering student. In the group’s donated workshop in Garden City, team members crawl all over an unassuming and largely dissected 1998 Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck. “We chose our category and this kind of vehicle because people will be able to identify with it and say, ‘Wait, that thing runs on vegetable oil?’”

While their run in Utah will be their first, team members feel like they’ve been racing against the clock for months. They’ve been very successful at gathering donations of parts, money and expertise (not to mention garage space) from more than 60 donors and partners. But the group still needs several key parts to make their runs at Speed Week, which now are just days away. It will be down to the wire to make sure everything is ready. (Click here for a list of the items the group still needs. )

“It will be very close,” said Jozey Mitcham, Greenspeed driver and co-founder. “There are a few parts that won’t get in until later this week and we will be leaving next Friday. Hopefully everything will come through and we can get the truck completed. It definitely is a race before the race.”

For Mitcham, a senior in the mathematics and mechanical engineering programs, getting up to speed on “The Salt” is a family tradition. As a girl, she watched her uncle race and become a member of the Bonneville 200 MPH Club. She calls the Bonneville Salt Flats “heaven on Earth” and six years ago became a driver herself – but she hasn’t driven at Bonneville, yet. She hopes the Greenspeed truck is her ticket to join the 200 MPH Club her first time out.

Patrick Johnston uses a plasma cutter to make a new transmission tunnel in the Greenspeed pick-up.

In addition to Mitcham and Schenker, Greenspeed members include Adrian Rothenbühler, an electrical engineering graduate student, Patrick Johnston and Seth Feuerborn, both mechanical engineering undergrads.

Their appearance will not be as simple as one big blast down the track – a seemingly abrupt climax to months of painstaking preparation. Instead, the build up will be quite incremental and require a stamina that seems counterintuitive to the speeds the team hopes to achieve.

The team’s initial run on the five-mile track can be at any speed they like. But in each subsequent run they can only increase their speed in 25 mph increments, with those teams not heeding this rule being disqualified. So, depending on the rate of their first run, it could take half a dozen runs or more over the course of the week to reach the top-range of the truck’s capabilities. In the end, the team’s final time will be an average of the top two speeds they achieve.

All of the team’s current focus is devoted to completing the truck and making the trip to Bonneville. But beyond putting down a marker for the importance of alternative fuels and breaking land speed records, Greenspeed members are thinking in terms of laying a foundation for future generations of Boise State students to follow in their footsteps.

“I hope that we can keep this club rolling for many years to come,” Mitcham said.

Part of that could be creating deeper connections to mainstream Boise State research. For example, work being done by Kevin Feris, a biology professor, on behalf of the U.S. Dairy Innovation Center, a research arm of U.S. dairy industry, could yield a campus-grown source of biodiesel for Greenspeed’s future iterations. Feris is working with algae production as part of his research into turning dairy waste into energy and biodiesel is one of the bi-products.

“We’re not producing biodiesel on the scale they need yet, but in a year or two we could be,” said Feris, whose work is funded by the Center for Advanced Energy (CAES) Studies at Boise State, a joint energy research consortium between Boise State, the Idaho National Laboratory, University of Idaho and Idaho State University.

Successful or not, there’s no doubt that Greenspeed has struck a chord that seems to fit right in with Boise State’s own underdog narrative.

“Every now and then, you run across a group of students that have a great idea and the right combination of skills and perseverance to do something really special. That’s what I see with the Greenspeed group,” said John Gardner, director of Boise State’s Energy Efficiency Research Institute and Greenspeed’s faculty sponsor. “In the finest tradition of engineering and innovation, where most people would ask ‘Why?’, they asked ‘Why not?’”

Click here to learn more about Greenspeed and its members.