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THS grad ‘plugged into the future’

Posted on Saturday, May 25, 2013 at 9:00 am


andrea agardy


A team of University of Tennessee-Knoxville students, including Tullahoma’s Katelynn Routh, is wrapping up the second year of a three-year competition to see which group of young engineers can leave the smallest carbon footprint while making the biggest impression on the auto industry.

Established by the United States Department of Energy (DOE) and General Motors, the competition, called EcoCAR 2: Plugging In to the Future, is the only program of its kind. Engineering teams from 15 universities across the country are given the task of reducing the environmental impact of vehicles without compromising performance, safety and consumer acceptability.

Routh, who graduated from THS in 2009 and received bachelor’s degrees in communications and political science during UT’s convocation ceremony last week, serves as the communications manager for UT’s 27-member team, which also includes a business manager and 25 mechanical, electric and computer science engineering students.

Although Routh said she’s always considered herself to be an environmentalist, she credited her brother, 2007 THS grad Mitchel Routh, with sparking her interest in the competition. She said her brother, who earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at UT before going to work for GM in Detroit, was the engineering team leader the last time UT took part in the EcoCAR challenge.

Katelynn Routh, a 2009 THS graduate, is part of UT Knoxville’s 27-member team for Eco-Car 2: Plugging into the Future, an engineering competition that challenges college stu-dents to design, build and present an environmentally friendly vehicle. Photo Provided

The competition is a three-year challenge, although winners are declared at the end of each phase since team members change from one year to the next, picking the project up where their predecessors left off.

Year one of the challenge, Routh explained, is the design phase.

“The competitors design a hybrid vehicle with the goal of reducing the use of petroleum products and greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. By the end of this phase, the teams have finalized their concept and tested its effectiveness using computer models. The UT team finished in sixth place in the overall rankings after the first year of the challenge.

At the start of year two, all 15 teams are given a new Chevrolet Malibu to take their designs from theory to reality. Routh said the teams are essentially using the Malibus as shells, replacing the traditional gas engine with their own hybrid designs and systems.

“Our design is a plug-in hybrid,” Routh said, adding the vehicle has the capability of running on electricity as well as E85, which is a fuel made of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent cellulosic ethanol, a fuel derived from switch grass.

But the competition isn’t simply swapping out one engine for another. According to Routh, the teams design an entirely new vehicle, right down to the paint, interior and stereo systems and present their final product at the end of year three, the refinement phase.

“We have to make it look like a showroom car and we have to maintain customer acceptability,” she said.

Although the car selected as the ultimate winner will not be mass produced, she said the point of the EcoCAR 2 competition isn’t only to challenge students, but to spark new ways of thinking in car manufacturers’ current engineers.

Routh and her teammates recently traveled to Yuma, Ariz. to put their vehicle to the test against the competition at the GM proving grounds. The winner of year two of the EcoCAR challenge is expected to be announced shortly.

As her team’s communications manager, Routh in is charge of outreach, a relatively new aspect to the competition, which began back in 1988. She spread the word about the competition and the efforts of the UT team through social media and blogging and interacting with middle school students in STEM education programs, all while continuing to maintain the busy schedule of a full-time college student.

“I worked 30 hours a week on the competition along with being a full-time student and I still graduated summa cum laude,” Routh said, attributing the accomplishment in large part to the time-management skills EcoCAR 2 helped her hone.

Now that she has graduated and her tenure with UT team is coming to an end, Routh will soon be entering the workforce. She said her experience with the EcoCAR 2 competition has helped her decide what she wants to do with her professional life.

“I wanted to work where I could continue to grow and learn and the auto industry is always changing… It’s a very interesting field to me and I especially enjoy seeing advances made in the auto industry toward hybrid vehicles,” Routh said. “I’m trying to find a job similar to what I’ve done in this competition. I’ve really grown to love it.”

More information on EcoCAR 2: Plugging In to the Future, can be found online at www.ecocar2.org.

Andrea Agardy can be reached by email at tnrept03@lcs.net.