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KNOXVILLE — University of Tennessee student engineers recently received a new Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle, and they immediately began tearing it apart.

The students are modifying the SUV to compete against vehicles from 14 other schools in the FutureTruck 2000 contest, May 31-June 9, at the General Motors Desert Proving Ground in Mesa, Ariz.

Dr. Jeff Hodgson, a UT engineering professor, said the students are pulling the Suburban’s gasoline-powered engine, converting it to run on electricity and diesel fuel. The modifications could cut its emissions 65 percent, improve fuel economy, and boost power, he said.

Hodgson said West Chevrolet in Alcoa delivered UT’s Suburban last week. Its hefty, 5,600-pound weight is an obstacle to emissions reduction goals, and is a major part of the challenge, he said.

“With a vehicle that big you have to provide quite a bit of power to propel it,” Hodgson said. “The students are replacing the standard gasoline engine with a diesel engine and an electric motor. The combined output of those two is actually greater than that of the stock engine.

“We wanted the vehicle to drive like a standard vehicle. We didn’t want it to be a real slug.”

Sponsors for the competition include the U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors Corp., who provide each school with a Suburban and $10,000.

Industry representatives, government officials and scientists will judge the vehicles for fuel efficiency, power, exhaust emissions, and other criteria.

Craig Rutherford, UT’s student team leader, said the contest provides future engineers with valuable hands-on experience in advanced vehicle technologies.

“This is a real learning experience,” Rutherford said. “An engineer’s job is to apply science in ways that improve people’s lives, and this competition is teaching us how to do that.”

In 10 alternative fuel competitions over the last 10 years, UT has won three and finished among the top four nine times.

Other schools participating in FutureTruck 2000 are: Concordia, Cornell, George Washington and West Virginia universities; Georgia Institute of Technology, Michigan Technological University, Penn State, Texas Tech, Ohio State and Virginia Tech; and the universities of California-Davis, Idaho, Maryland, and Wisconsin at Madison.