Seniors adapt vehicles to run on solar power and cooking oil
What started as a summer project turned into a cross-country adventure and a deep dive into alternative fuels.
Out-of-Door Academy seniors Andrew Dowdell and Brian Lutton are tackling solar power this semester as a class project that will ultimately benefit the school.
Dowdell and Lutton are working with various ODA alumni and companies to retrofit a golf cart to run on solar power.
The project is a continuation of their alternative fuel experiments that started last summer, when they converted a car to run on cooking oil.
“It amazes me to be able to just let something sit outside and charge,” Lutton said of solar power experiment.
Lutton said he would like to be a front-runner in the solar power industry along with Dowdell.
So far, they have put a solar panel on the roof of the golf cart and installed the charge controller. They have been able to fully charge the cart’s batteries with just the sun, which Lutton said is “a little bit of a milestone in the project.”
They hope to have the golf cart charging system finished by the end of the semester, so they can use it as a model to convert ODA’s eight golf carts from gas to electric. They are also going to work on creating a solar field by the school’s athletic fields to charge the golf carts.
Dowdell said a solar panel shelter would charge the carts and protect them from the elements.
“It’s a more efficient way to use the space,” he said.
Their work on the golf carts will be a part of a legacy they leave ODA after graduation, Lutton said.
“We’re trying to start something that hopefully can get passed down in the engineering classes, so they can improve on our design and make it work in different applications … better than we could,” he said.
Dowdell and Lutton’s drive to work on alternative fuels stemmed from their summer project of fixing a 1985 Mercedes 300CD to run on cooking oil rather than diesel.
They bought the car, which they named John, for $1,300 on Craig’s List.
The car had several problems, including no brakes, a faulty steering lock that prevented them from starting the car and nonfunctional tail, dash and signal lights.
“The only thing that worked was the wipers,” Dowdell said.
After getting the car in running condition, developing the conversion to oil and securing a donation of cooking oil from the Waffle House, they began a 6,000-mile trip from Florida to Maine, then west to Ohio and Michigan and back to Florida. They averaged 27 miles to the gallon on the cooking oil.
The main purpose of the trip was to visit Kettering University in Michigan, where Lutton and Dowdell will be enrolled next fall to study automotive engineering.
Their trip did have challenges, though.
One memorable one was the car catching fire as they drove on I-290 West during rush hour in Worcester, Mass.
A wretched smell came from the car, and suddenly, smoke was coming out of the air conditioning vents and from the hood.
“My first instinct was to turn off the engine and hope that would stop the smoke,” Lutton said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t.”
They hoped the smoke from the car would be enough of a signal to let people know something was wrong because the horn, steering and turn signals weren’t working.
They were able to put out the fire and find the cause of the fire, but other issues continued, such as only being able to use the right turn signal when honking the horn. It was also physically uncomfortable because the windows barely worked, and the air conditioning quit.
One way or another, they figured it out and kept the car running.
Whether it’s the car or the golf cart, Dowdell and Lutton love seeing the end result.
“Changing something, tinkering with it, having it explode on you or catch on fire once or twice before eventually achieving the goal and getting it to work is definitely my favorite part,” Lutton said.