April 4, 2022
How do you convert an ATV to solar power for -30°C conditions in Canada’s North? UCalgary students figure it out
All-terrain and utility-task vehicles are a necessity of life in Canada’s north — transporting people and goods around some of the most isolated landscapes in the world.
However, fuel is very expensive, leading many who rely on the machines to make them more sustainable.
One such organization is the Arctic Institute of North America’s (AINA) Kluane Lake Research Station (KLRS), located 220 kilometres northwest of Whitehorse, Yukon. Established in 1961, the station is home to research in a variety of fields including hydroponics, weather and renewable energy.
Dr. Henry Penn, PhD, program manager of science and sustainability of AINA and manager of KLRS, says he wanted to find a way to convert a gas-powered Kubota RTV 500 mid-sized utility vehicle to an electric motor.
With the hope of powering the vehicle with the station’s existing solar grid, he proposed the project to a group of students at the Schulich School of Engineering for their capstone project.
“We have a goal of demonstrating innovative technology solutions to real-world problems,” he says. “In this case, we were interested in understanding how existing petrol ATVs could be converted to electric vehicles, what the cost would be relative to buying a new vehicle, and to provide all the knowledge to anyone who could make use of it.”
Wanting to make a difference
Austin Bercier, Jasmine McDermott, Wylie Pietsch, Marlin Sako, Alejandro Sulbaran and Natasha Eden make up the UCalgary project team hoping to make an impact more than 2,500 kilometres away.
Bercier and McDermott first met at an Indigenous STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) summer camp during their second year at Schulich.
When they began planning their capstone projects in the fall of 2020, Bercier, from Métis Nation of Alberta Region III, and McDermott, whose family's heritage is with the Sawridge Cree First Nation, wanted to find something that could make a positive influence in Indigenous communities.
With the help of primary project adviser Dr. Kerry Black, PhD, they discussed several ideas before landing on the Kubota conversion.
“This project stood out to us because it required a unique mixture of theory and hands-on application that would challenge us to apply a wide range of previous classes as well as its direct applicability in northern Indigenous communities,” Bercier says.
Before long, they had support from others including secondary project adviser Dr. David Wood, PhD, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering.
Once the rest of the team joined the capstone group in fall 2021, the group quickly got to work coming up with the “blueprint” for the physical conversion of the all-terrain vehicle.
Since October, the students have done everything from market research and budgeting to taking apart the machine and putting it back together with its new pieces.
However, the team has been dealt a couple of setbacks when it comes to its timelines.
“The first major challenge we have had to overcome was navigating the worldwide supply-chain issue,” Bercier says. “That challenge has significantly increased the price of the project and strained the project schedule.”
With five of the six team members majoring in mechanical engineering while the other is in civil engineering, he says they had to step outside their comfort zone in some respects to handle other challenges like electrical engineering.
Bringing everyone together
Black has been impressed with the interdisciplinary approach being taken by the team to make a lasting impact in the community.
“The students have been engaged and passionate from the start, really wanting to push past typical design siloes, and proposed ambitious project outcomes,” she says. “They have had the community and context in mind throughout the process, and have really championed an approach that recognizes the needs of remote and Indigenous communities in the North.”
Wood adds the project even stretched advisers on their knowledge, as no one had experience in electric vehicle conversion.
“It has been a pleasure working with a dedicated and enthusiastic group on a project that will show the way for Indigenous and other remote communities in reducing their dependence on fossil fuels,” he says. “The support from KLRS has been invaluable as has the funding arranged from the Yukon government.”
Penn says it has been wonderful to work with a group of talented, socially minded engineering students who understood and focused on the broader social aspects of the project.
“The students have been remarkable,” he says. “They have been organized and motivated to create engineering design solutions to the challenge, and have developed an innovative solution.”
An invaluable experience
Regardless of the make and model, the team is hopeful its project will serve as a blueprint for Indigenous communities in the future.
The team’s work also shows how research and development happening at the University of Calgary can have far-reaching implications.
“Something that makes this conversion especially challenging is the environment in which it must operate,” Bercier says. “The average winter temperature in the Yukon is well below -30°C, so this is something we had to consider in our design and impacted nearly every major design decision the team has made.”
Not only was Bercier impressed with how the team came together for the project, but also each team member’s willingness to understand Indigenous ways of doing and learning things, adding each person created their own land acknowledgement that is shared at the start of each major team meeting.
“It has been a valuable opportunity to learn about a very different way of life,” he says. “The team is very excited to see how our design can be expanded.”