It may be one of the ultimate academic challenges. Put students who have never worked on an engine, in charge of a project to convert a tractor engine to run on a green fuel.
A group of Middlebury College physics students are working on a 1948 Ford tractor. They spent their January term carrying on the work of predecessors in 2008. The goal back then was to convert the tractor engine to run on hydrogen. They eventually got the engine to sputter, but that was it. This year's goal is loftier.
"Our goal was to optimize it to run on propane, methane, hydrogen and really get it actually running as opposed to just turning over on hydrogen," said said Alex Clement, a senior in the class. "So if you can just easily convert an engine to run on hydrogen rather than gas its a big step to switching off of a petroleum based fuel."
An engine control unit was installed, similar to what NASCAR uses to modify the engine's timing. That was hooked up to a computer that helps track and manipulate the engine.
"Theoretically on gasoline this engine is supposed to run on 23 horsepower and so one of our main goals is to get the settings right so we can try to reach that with the alternate fuels," said Aden Forrow, a junior. "For hydrogen we have only reached 11 -- trying to get it higher so we can actually get enough horse power to do something useful with this tractor."
It might seem strange that Middlebury College, known for its liberal arts programs is sponsoring this engineering challenge. Until you meet the two men responsible. Dick Catlin and Mark Benz were roommates at Middlebury in the 1950's. Benz became interested in the idea of converting farm equipment to hydrogen and shared that with Catlin and the College.
"To me, the liberal arts gives the notion of what is good for society and the engineering math science gives the wherewithal to do something. If you put the two together, then you know what to do and you know how to do it," Benz said.
"This is not a project where we know the answers going in, so the students had to figure a lot of that out -- they got real time, real life experience," Catlin said.
In 2008, four students spent a semester with the tractor. Last year the project was continued, thanks to donated space from Dave Bishop with Champlain Valley Equipment. "They were very methodical about their process. It was interesting to watch because that is not their world -- motors. But they have a good theory of things," Bishop said. "It was interesting how our world and their world came together to get this thing to really -- it really does run nice."
And it sparks the imagination. Think of the savings on the farm, and beyond if hydrogen conversion engines were to be mainstream.
"One of these guys some day is going to come up with a brainstorm and we are going to figure out how to really use hydrogen. It's what's in the air, it's what's in the water, it is so abundant and its free," Bishop said.