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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 — Houston, TX

Students convert Housing and Dining vehicle to electric

By Keegan Leibrock     4/16/24 10:13pm

Four Rice teams, encompassing over 20 students, worked over the past year to convert a 1997 Chevrolet P30 Rice Housing and Dining vehicle into a fully electric vehicle. The teams finalized the van’s conversion before its senior design debut at the Ion last Thursday. Two teams, the thermal management and dashboard design teams, received awards following the showcase.

Austin Greer, the project's lead manager and part of the Powertrain Development Team, said the idea for the project arose when H&D was looking for someone to make their van electric.

“The project started when Housing and Dining got together with the sustainability department … and wanted to do a project related to alternative fuels on campus,” Greer, a Wiess College senior, said. “Housing and Dining had this old bread truck that was just sitting out in a parking lot, so they got together and said, ‘Hey, is it possible to do a student project to convert to convert this thing to electric power?’”

Maya Chhong, who joined the project as part of the vehicle’s thermal management team, said she was interested in the project to gain experience working with automobiles.

“I actually had never worked on a vehicle before, but I was interested in learning a new skill and working on vehicles, so that is probably why I agreed to join [the team],” Chhong, a Jones College senior, said. “I loved that it was a student-led project and I care deeply about sustainability…so I liked the idea of working on something sustainability-related.”

Chhong said that some of her favorite moments working on the project were when the four teams collaborated. 

“Because we had so many teams, a lot of our work overlapped, leading to a lot of very cool moments where I wasn't just working on my part of the project,” Chhong said. “We were doing all these small things with the van with other members, and it was very casual … we cleaned the old decal off the van, we installed new headlights … There were just so many small things that we just got to do around the van that really made it feel like it was our project.”

Greer said that the biggest challenge to the project was balancing commitments and deadlines between the project, its associated class and the efforts of group members to make personal developments.

“We have a van to build, a class to do and people that want to build something — it is very hard to fulfill all of those, so at different times, sacrifices had to be made in order to keep the project going and the van on schedule,” Greer said. 

Greer said that although the project is nearly finalized, a number of calibrations will occur in the next month to ensure the van is fully operational in the long term. Once the van is fully adjusted, Greer said it will be given to a Rice department for use as a fleet vehicle.

“There are three or four departments that are now vying for this van,” Greer said. “It has always been [our team’s] intention to send this back into fleet service; we have got over 1000 miles on it, and we are going to continue to put miles on it.”

The “Deja Vu” team was composed of four freshmen engineering students and was tasked with converting the vehicle’s dashboard. After the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen Showcase, the team was awarded the Excellence in Freshman Engineering Design Award. 

Aoife Shannon, a member of the team, said that she enjoyed gaining hands-on experience by working on the project early in her undergraduate studies, which she can apply to an eventual career in mechanical engineering.

“I hadn't even really used most of the tools that were in the OEDK before, so going from no experience to now being able to cut a piece of wood, use a bandsaw, make lines in metal and being comfortable doing [it] was really fulfilling,” Shannon, a Wiess College freshman, said. “Learning those skills and being able to apply them to make something was one of my favorite parts of the project.”

Shannon said she felt honored to have received the award with her teammates.

“First semester, when the dashboard was really starting to come together, I talked with my group and realized that we could win at the showcase, that that was something that really could be possible,” Shannon said. “Then, having our name be called, that was just an amazing feeling.”

Ellie Schweiker, a member of the thermal management team, said she is glad she worked on the project and gained hands-on, applicable experience in engineering.

“Don’t be afraid of getting your hands on actual parts,” Schweiker, a Brown College senior, said. “I did not have a ton of experience with power tools or anything physically building before this project, but I think that is really important to being a mechanical engineer. I am thankful that I was able to embrace an opportunity to go out and get [my] hands dirty building something.”

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