Up for the Challenge: Ethan Brodsky on the Clean Snowmobile Challenge

We recently spoke with Jay Meldrum, Director of the Keweenaw Research Center at Michigan Technical University, about the annual Clean Snowmobile Challenge (CSC) in Houghton Michigan, and the conversation left us wanting to know more about what it’s like to participate in the engineering contest.

To find out more, we talked with Ethan Brodsky who participated in the Clean Snowmobile Challenge while a graduate at the University of Wisconsin in Madison during the early 2000s. Now a staff scientist in radiology and medical imaging at his alma mater, Brodsky became the "unofficial advisor" (Glenn Bower is the official advisor)  to the school's CSC team in 2008. He offers a unique perspective on the past, present, and future of the Society of Automotive Engineers Clean Snowmobile Challenge competition.

“Participating in these student vehicle competitions was one of the highlights of my college career,” relates Brodsky. “Each event culminates in a week-long competition that is exhilarating like nothing else I’ve experienced. It’s a sleep-deprived rush that can only end in two ways: either you win and it was all worth it, or somebody else does, and those weeks of late nights in the garage were all wasted.”

Brodsky said most students participate as an extracurricular activity out of personal interest, although some receive independent study credit. Brodsky became the pseudo-advisor to UW’s Clean Snowmobile Challenge team in graduate school. The team consists of about 15 students who spend the year tweaking snowmobile engines to reduce emissions without sacrificing performance in preparation for the competition.

“Most students do it a couple of years for fun or as a resume builder or to help get into grad school,” explains Brodsky. “But some people really get into the leadership roles and stick around for their entire college career.”

Today Brodsky is one of UW’s CSC team advisors who has helped lead the team to championships for gas-powered snowmobiles in 2009 and 2010. The zero-emissions snowmobile won the 2008, 2009, and 2010 competitions.

“The UW College of Engineering has had a tradition of excellence across our automotive student design projects dating back over a decade. We’ve won five hybrid vehicle competitions, taken home seven first-place trophies at the CSC, and won a number of other national SAE events.  A lot of the credit goes to Dr. Glenn Bower, the senior student vehicle projects advisor—his dedication to the projects and the students is immeasurable. He expects a lot from everyone and drives the students to do their best.

In 2008 Brodsky was invited to bring the winning zero emissions snowmobile to Summit Station, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded research station on Greenland's ice sheet summit, where it would be rotated into the station's snowmobile fleet (The NSF has supported the zero-emissions competition for years, most recently through this NSF grant.  It was a whirlwind trip—three days in which he tested the snowmobile in the harsh Greenland environment. At Summit, Brodsky did a lot of test-driving. He also taught Summit staffers to run, handle, and maintain the retrofitted machine. In all, the staff learned how to take the snowmobile apart and put it back together, how to charge the 350 volt batteries and keep them running, and how to download data (how many miles driven) from the attached data logger. In 2009, UW again loaned its winning snowmobile to Summit Station, where it was used all summer.

“Greenland was the most other-worldly place I’ve ever been," says Brodsky. "Just the white landscape as far as I could see against the blue sky.  It was a very lonely-feeling place, far from everything, very alien. It was an awesome trip!”

Looking ahead, Brodsky says he would like to see opportunity for riskier design in future Clean Snowmobile Challenges. When the competition began in 2000, students' snowmobiles were better than anything sold in the market. In the interim, snowmobile manufacturers have adopted myriad changes and cleaned up their machines. Meanwhile, the rules of competition have changed very little in the last 10 years. Teams are allowed only to alter the engine but Brodsky says this is somewhat limiting now in terms of innovation as many technologies developed in the last decade may not yet be applied to competition designs.

So, Brodsky says in the meantime, his zero-emissions team will focus on trying to build a more robust snowmobile that’s more useful in Greenland and, hopefully, Antarctica. The next step, Brodsky says, is to develop a better battery management system with batteries that can run all the way down and that can better handle Greenland’s cold temperatures.  He would also like to develop battery packs that can last five years. In any case, he’s still having fun.

“It’s funny—because of these projects, my friends seem to get younger and younger. Or, I guess I’m just getting old. We still stay up all night working together on snowmobile designs. It was the most exciting part of my college experience and of my life in general.”—Marcy Davis

For more, visit the Clean Snowmobile Challenge website.