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Student news: Going green, one moped at a time

Vespa scooter

A Vespa scooter is a scooter with a history—it’s credited as the affordable form of mass transportation that reignited Italy’s post-World War II economy. The scooter’s unique, timeless design makes it the “Rolls Royce” of scooters, an heirloom that can last 20 years in the care of a faithful owner.

Yet, even for a Vespa, there’s room for improvement, and 16 University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering students spent last fall figuring out how to make the already environmentally friendly Vespa even more green.

While enrolled in civil and environmental engineering professor Marc Anderson’s section of InterEngineering 160, Introduction to Engineering, the students designed, built and tested a hydrogen-based system that ultimately reduced the amount of gasoline necessary to run a Vespa moped by 10 percent. The system is based on electrolysis, the process of splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen via an electrical charge.

“As freshmen, they’re just starting to get used to things, and I usually pick out projects that are difficult so they’ll learn a lot,” says Anderson, adding the project offered exposure to environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, electrochemical engineering, materials science and construction engineering.

The students experimented on a yellow 50-cc steel-body Vespa moped provided at a substantial discount by Jeff Dunn, the owner of Vespa Madison at Dunn’s Import in Middleton. While the bike already averages 90 miles to a gallon of gasoline, Dunn says even Vespa needs to do better environmentally, and he’s more than willing to help the students.

Marc A. Anderson

Marc A. Anderson (large image)

“I think what they’re doing is very exciting. I believe wholeheartedly that it’s good for Vespa,” he says.

The students divided their work into three components: the electrolysis device, the battery and the engine. For the electrolysis device, they designed rectangular electrodes to split the water using carbon plates coated with a nanoparticle thin film Anderson developed. They set the plates inside a container called an electrolyzer, which they positioned near the moped engine beneath the driver’s seat. The electrodes are powered by a charge from the moped’s alternator and separate the water into oxygen and hydrogen, funneling the hydrogen directly to the engine’s cylinder via a stainless steel tube.

Once in the engine, the hydrogen produces a more complete combustion, according to Anderson, which means the engine more efficiently uses the fuel.

The electrolyzer system could, in addition to reducing the amount of gasoline necessary, also reduce moped emissions. While the students did not have time to test emissions levels their system produced, Anderson anticipates the more complete combustion caused by hydrogen in the engine would make the moped run cleaner. From here, the electrolyzer system may benefit the UW-Madison vehicle teams, which frequently experiment with hybrid vehicle technologies. In fact, mechanical engineering faculty associate Glenn Bower, who oversees the vehicle teams, offered additional advice and support to the moped project.

Not all college freshmen delve into their majors via practical, hands-on projects in their first semester on campus, and the experience has been valuable for mechanical engineering freshman Steven Burbach.

“The project was very cutting-edge—we weren’t building things that had already been done, and I really appreciate Professor Anderson’s willingness to trust us with this,” he says. “Engineering isn’t just sitting at a desk. It’s getting out there, tackling real-world problems.”

—Sandra Knisely

Sandra Knisely
3/2/2009