A group photo of the Penn State Behrend supermileage team.

Student-built vehicle exceeds 2,400 mpg

New engine design powers Behrend's SAE team to second-place finish at the International Supermileage Challenge.

For years, students in the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) club at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, used a carburetor engine in the cars they built for the International Supermileage Challenge, where teams try to squeeze the most mileage out of a single tank of high-octane gasoline. It worked: Behrend teams earned two first-place finishes and one second-place finish since 2012.

This year, however, the team tried something different.

“We had maxed out what we could do with a carburetor engine,” said Ryan Dombrosky, a Mount Pleasant native and president of the SAE club. “We decided to change over to a fuel-injection engine. This meant we had to revamp pretty much everything on the engine and really test and fine-tune it. It’s now just like what’s in your typical passenger car, only scaled down.”

Powered by the new engine, Behrend’s SAE team finished second in this year’s competition, which was held at the Eaton Corporation’s Marshall Proving Grounds test track in Michigan. The students’ vehicle traveled 2,418 miles on one gallon of gas. The team also placed second in the Design Report Sub-Competition.

“This was a learning experience for us,” said Dombrosky, who graduated in May with a degree in mechanical engineering. “With the new engine, the great thing is there’s no residual fuel wasted, and now that we have switched over, we won’t change back. Our team will be able to refine it for next year.”

The engine is about the only similarity between the club’s vehicle and a traditional commercial automobile. The vehicle measures around eight feet long and less than two feet high. Its lightweight, aerodynamic design contributes to the fuel efficiency it delivers.

It’s also ideal for the “burn and coast” method of driving that the Behrend SAE team uses. At the start of the competition, the team’s driver starts the engine, accelerates for a bit and then turns the engine off to coast the remainder of the course. It’s an intentional attempt at fuel conservation.

Mary Beth Burbules knows the driving style well. The Erie native drove the vehicle again this year, the fourth-straight year she has taken on that role.

“If I were ever claustrophobic, I would have had to get over that four years ago,” said Burbules, who graduated in May with a degree in mechanical engineering. “As long as you can reach the handle that has your throttle, your brake handle and the kill switch of the vehicle, you’re golden.”

In the future, the team’s goal is to travel 3,000 miles on a single gallon of gas. This year’s first-place team, Universite’ Laval, which also uses a fuel-injection engine, finished with 4,113 miles. As the team gains more experience with the new engine, Dombrosky thinks such a number could be within reach.

“Most teams have not moved to this type of engine, so we’re actually ahead of the curve,” he said. “The team will take a look at everything, and we’ll see what we can improve.”