UAF police driving battery-powered ATV

Modified 2002 four-wheeler made possible by mechanical engineering students

Posted: Wednesday, January 20, 2010

FAIRBANKS - The University Police Department is about to acquire a new high-tech gadget that's more notable for what it won't do than what it will.

The modified 2002 Suzuki Eiger four-wheeler won't use any gasoline. It won't create any emissions. And except for the sound of tires rolling across the ground, it won't make a noise above a whisper.

The ATV will be the department's first all-electric vehicle, thanks to a two-week modification process by mechanical engineering students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Michael Golub, who teaches the electric car conversion class during the UAF winter session, also called the Wintermester, approached Police Chief Sean McGee last summer to see if the department was interested. He got an enthusiastic response.

"The concept behind this one is so appropriate," McGee said. "The university has mounted this effort toward sustainability, and this fits right in with that."

Two ATVs were acquired through a program that allows law enforcement departments to receive surplus military equipment. Golub lined up the pair of Eigers, which he thought would be suitable for the project.

With a budget of $4,500, Golub and the dozen students in the class cobbled together the gas-powered ATVs into an all-electric vehicle.

A 7-inch diameter electric motor, which is about the size of several stacked gallon-size milk jugs, is combined with a 45-volt lithium battery pack to power the ATV. The combination takes up roughly the same amount of space and weighs slightly less than the engine and gas tank in the pre-modification Eiger. It'll be powered with an adapter that can be plugged in at the police department.

The ATV showed up without any wheels, so Golub mounted a set of studded tires from his Ford Escort.

It was clear on the first test drive that the modified Eiger is different from its gasoline-powered cousins. After the class started it for the first time Friday night, they took it for a silent, emissions-free test drive through the halls of UAF's Duckering building.

Golub, a graduate engineering student, is well-acquainted with the process of overhauling vehicles. He's converted several cars, a truck, a snowmachine and even a riding mower to electric power in the past several years, but this was his first ATV. With each conversion, he said his knowledge of the process takes a small step forward.

His expertise has led to invitations to teach the conversion process throughout the Alaska and Yukon region, including stops in Dillingham, Barrow, Palmer and Dawson City. The two-week course at UAF was filled with a collection of engineering students and people who are eager to translate the knowledge toward their own projects.

Rick Hoegberg, a local electrical engineer, said he's planning to convert an old Ford Festiva to an electric vehicle with the information he's gained in Golub's class.

"I'm disappointed that we don't have (electric vehicles) already, and I'm basically fed up with waiting," Hoegberg said. "I thought I'd do it on my own."

Golub said his primary reason for approaching University Police with the ATV plan was simply to introduce the concept of no-emission vehicles to the campus.

"I think it was my hope that we can get UAF to use more electric vehicles - any way, any how," he said.

Golub said the way the ATV likely will be used at UAF is ideal for an electric vehicle. The distances it needs to cover are limited, and it won't need to reach extremely high speeds.

Calculations in the lab show the ATV will be able to go about 30 miles at 20 mph. Golub said those figures might be a little off once it's tested in the real world, but he's confident it will have the range and speed to be a useful tool for the police.

Most of the UAF campus can be reached by car, but an extensive trail network is also part of the territory covered by campus police. In the summer, McGee said the area is patrolled regularly by ATVs because people build unauthorized camps in the area.

A few details remain. Golub said some safety equipment needs to be installed on the ATV, and he isn't sure exactly when the handoff to the police will take place. They also need to make arrangements to do maintenance or train a mechanic to work on the ATV.

"I'm not really worried," Golub said. "An electric vehicle is really simple to work on."

Now that the ATV process is nearly complete, Golub is looking ahead to his next project. He's not sure what next summer's class will involve, but he's hopeful that a sponsor will approach him with a vehicle for conversion.

"I don't know what it'll be," Golub said. "I'm always trying to do something new."

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