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Mission accomplished: Nature Coast High students convert car from gas to electric

BROOKSVILLE — It's sportier than a Prius, uses less gas and gleams with a new coat of Sharks blue paint.

After hundreds of hours of labor, students at Nature Coast Technical High School have converted a 2002 Toyota Celica to run on rechargeable batteries.

"It's pretty impressive," said 17-year-old Sean Bobbert, a senior who was among the students who started the project at the end of the 2009-10 school year. "I feel like I've accomplished something with everybody working on this."

All told, about 65 students in electrical and automotive courses had a hand in the effort. About a dozen of them gathered in the school's auto bay Wednesday to put some finishing touches on the car and show off their handiwork.

In this case, using less gas than the Prius, Toyota's hybrid model, means no gas at all.

Students removed the four-cylinder engine and dropped in a Warp 9 electric motor, powered by 44 32-volt lithium ion batteries stacked in the trunk.

They ripped out the trappings of a gasoline-powered motor. The exhaust system is gone, the fuel tank history. Behind the fuel door now is a receptacle for a 110-volt power cord that dumps a full charge into the battery pack in about six to eight hours.

The students installed a 12-volt battery to power the rest of the car's electronics. A box-shaped control module on top of the new motor includes a vacuum system for the power brakes.

Sunk into the dashboard are two new gauges — one for amps, the other for volts — that tell drivers when to plug in. The Celica will travel about 50 to 60 miles on a full charge, depending on driving habits, said teacher Joe Wright, who led the project with help from automotive teacher Kevin Moglia and teaching assistant Dan Murphy.

"It's an everyday, around-town kind of car," Wright said.

Many of the components came in a conversion kit, but that didn't mean the process was easy. Mating the new motor to the existing, six-speed manual transmission posed the biggest challenge, requiring custom machine work.

A $22,000 grant from Progress Energy and support from other businesses made the project possible. Wright brought the idea to the Hernando Education Foundation, which then asked Progress for the funds.

Wright bought the Celica from a Brooksville dealer for $4,200, a price that included a $1,300 discount for returning the original engine. One rim was bent, a piece of the rear spoiler had crumbled, and the stereo and speakers were gone. But otherwise the car was in fair shape.

Students found a stereo and speakers on eBay and chose an environmentally-friendly, water-based paint donated by BASF to match the Sharks' school colors. Justice Collision of Spring Hill donated labor, and GoodRoads of Fort Lauderdale chipped in the five-spoke, alloy rims.

The car, sporting a Nature Coast logo on the back window, weighs about 200 pounds more than it did in stock condition, Wright said. The motor has lots of torque and provides plenty of pickup. Top-end speed is lower than a gas-powered car. But on a solo test drive, Wright pushed the speedometer to 90 mph.

"We'd probably get him in the jump," sophomore Tyler Welsh said when asked how the car might do against a fellow student's stock Celica, "but we'd probably lose in the long run."

The conversion project gives students hands-on lessons in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — STEM courses — that have become a renewed focus in Florida, said education foundation chairman Gus Guadagnino.

It also is a perfect fit for Nature Coast's evolving course offerings to prepare graduates for careers in the ever-growing field of alternative energy, principal Toni-Ann Noyes said.

"It's what business people are looking for," Guadagnino said. "This has to do with creativity and thinking outside of the box."

The school happened to unveil the car on the same day the Obama administration announced stricter fuel economy standards. Cars and light-duty trucks will need to achieve combined fuel-economy standards of 54.5 mpg by 2025.

Electric cars certainly mean more customers for Progress, but the company has a duty to help give students perspective on the need to shift away from fossil fuels, said company spokesman Rob Sumner.

"The more they know about alternative energy, the better off everyone will be," Sumner said.

Freshman Zack Rhoades saw the car in its early stages last year when he visited Nature Coast during orientation. The display of ingenuity, Rhoades said, reaffirmed his decision to attend the school to launch a career as an electrician, focusing in green technologies.

"I'm good at it, you always learn something new and it pays pretty well," Rhoades said.

The Celica garnered an invitation to this weekend's Tampa Bay International Auto Show at the Tampa Convention Center. The students also hope to travel to Orlando next semester to see a professional driver put the car through its paces on a closed race track.

The car's ultimate destination, though, is unclear. There is a chance it might ultimately roll through the world-famous Barrett-Jackson auto auction in Las Vegas, with the proceeds coming back to he school for another project, Wright said.

"It would be tough to see it go," said Bobbert, the senior who saw the project through from start to finish. "I wouldn't mind getting it for myself."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Mission accomplished: Nature Coast High students convert car from gas to electric 11/16/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 8:06pm]

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