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Minnesota students create 'super' hybrid cars

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Students at six Minnesota technical colleges have spent their summer converting gas/electric hybrid cars into plug-in hybrids, dramatically increasing their fuel economy. 

The Minnesota Department of Commerce is funding the project.  State officials say they want to prepare students to work on "cars of the future" as more car companies begin to sell hybrid vehicles and all-electric cars.

As they pass by fuel pump after fuel pump, Toyota Prius drivers may be proud of their gas-sipping ways. A Prius typically gets about 50 miles per gallon.

But Tim McClusky, an automotive instructor at Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, said that's nothing compared to the supercharged hybrid his students have built.  

"You can probably in a normal commute take that Prius, which would get get 50 to 55 miles to the gallon, and easily push that above 80 or 90 miles to the a gallon." 

Students in McClusky's automotive technician class took a 2005 Toyota Prius and converted it to a plug in-hybrid.  

They installed a 188-pound lithium-ion battery in the back of the car.  It helps the hybrid go faster and farther on its electric motor.  The extra battery is charged by a standard electrical cord plugged into the car's fender and takes about five hours to fully recharge. 

Plug-in Toyota Prius hybrid
This plug-in Toyota Prius hybrid takes about five hours to fully recharge its batteries. The state provided six Minnesota technical school $39,000 to buy the cars and convert them to plug-in hybrids.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

  Normally the gas engine on a Prius kicks in at about 25 mph.  

But cruising down a back road in the plug-in hybrid, Dakota County Tech instructor Mark Hickman said this car can reach highway speeds using just the electric motor.    

"I'm cruising at 40 mph and no problem," he said. "And if I'm very careful with it, I can bring it up to 50; I've seen 65 mph on just battery pack."

And that translates into impressive gas mileage.  The information screen on the Prius said the car was getting 95 mpg during Hickman's demonstration.

 "And it's also very quiet and peaceful as I cruise along," he said. "You think, 'I'm going 45, 50 mph and I'm not burning any gasoline'," 

Mark Hickman behind the wheel
Mark Hickman is an automotive instructor at Dakota County Technical College. Hickman helped students convert this 2005 Toyota Prius to a plug-in hybrid.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The Toyota Prius conversion project has given students a chance to learn about the technology behind hybrid and electric vehicles.  

Ben Studley, 19, takes automotive classes at Dakota County Tech and works at an auto dealer in Rogers. "I've always been a fan of suping up anything, making it go faster, making it have better fuel economy, just overall performance," Studley said.  "This was really fun to do."

Studley said the most important part of the project was learning to safely work on a hybrid vehicle, especially one with bigger and more powerful batteries. 

"Discharging the battery, so we could properly disconnect it and safely work on it without killing ourselves," Studley said.  "These are close to 300 volt systems and you'll be a marshmallow before you know it."

Studley hasn't worked on many hybrid vehicles so far.  But thinks he'll have the knowledge to work on hybrids and all electric cars as more roll into the auto shop in the future.     

Big battery
Students at Dakota County Technical College installed this 188 pound lithium ion battery in a Toyota Prius, making it a plug-in hybrid. The battery allows the car to go farther and faster using only its electric engine, dramatically improving its gas mileage.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Giving students the confidence to work on the cars of the future is a big reason why the Minnesota Department of Commerce is funding the project.  

The department sent $29,000 grants to six Minnesota Technical schools across the state.  The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System supplied another $10,000 to each school.  The schools spent the money on used Priuses and the conversion kits to turn them into plug-in hybrids.  The kits themselves cost about $11,000. 

"The idea is to get some experience now," said Bill Glahn,director of the Minnesota Office of Energy Security at the state Department of Commerce.  "Then when they're in widespread availability we have a bunch of people around the state that have experience with working with the technology and they can train others." 

Glahn said each of the colleges will use the plug-in hybrids as fleet vehicles.  They'll also monitor the performance of the cars, and feed that information back to the state to help officials determine if plug-in hybrids are actually the wave of the future, or just a point along the way to something better.