UNIVERSITY PARK - Every three years, Penn State students involved in the EcoCAR 2 program are faced with a daunting task: starting from scratch to design and build an environmentally-friendly vehicle from an existing production car.
For Penn State senior Alex Kirsch, the experience has been challenging - but one that feels right at home for the mechanical engineering major.
"This isn't the first car I've built," said Kirsch, an Ebensburg native and 2009 Bishop Carroll Catholic High School graduate.
Kirsch is one of the team members on the Penn State Advanced Vehicle Team assigned to the mechanical side of the EcoCAR 2 project.
The challenge is one that is all too familiar to him. Kirsch said he began building and racing go-karts and stock cars with his father at age 14, and has been into cars ever since.
"Coming from a background of building things before, I re-did a lot of the designs just to make them more manufacturable," Kirsch said.
After joining the team at the start of the fall semester as part of his senior project, Kirsch engineered a new fuel tank for the vehicle, which he plans to fabricate during the holiday break between semesters.
"The time commitment on this job is more than anything I've ever done in my life," Kirsch said.
Kirsch estimated he spends about 40 hours a week working with the EcoCAR 2 team in addition to attending regular classes.
The EcoCAR 2 competition challenges teams to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and gas consumption while improving the efficiency on a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, donated by General Motors.
Kirsch said the experience working on the EcoCAR 2 project has been invaluable; students not only design the project but also work together to build and test everything they do on a real vehicle.
Cheyenne Sexton, a member of the EcoCAR 2 outreach team, agreed.
"It's very interesting and it's also an incredible opportunity," Sexton said.
Outreach team members work with the different build teams to promote the team's EcoCAR 2 design to fulfill the outreach component of the competition, Sexton said.
The entire team is comprised of students from a variety of majors who draw their skills together to accomplish a common objective, Sexton said.
"It's remarkable to see what undergraduate students can accomplish, especially for the green automotive industry," she said.
Fifteen universities, including Penn State and fellow Big Ten schools Ohio State and Purdue, are involved in the competition.
Now in the second year of the three-year competition, teams have begun to build the "mule" vehicle based on designs drafted by the team in the first year of the project, Kirsch said. The third and final year involves final completion of the project.
Teams are judged on the car's design, performance, mechanical and engineering components, outreach and a number of other categories.
Despite falling slightly behind schedule, Kirsch said the team is on track to be a major competitor when GM officials put the cars to the test at the end of the spring semester.
"I'm pretty happy with where we're going to be at the end of the year," Kirsch said.
Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.