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Originally published January 16, 2011 at 9:48 AM | Page modified January 16, 2011 at 2:15 PM

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WWU students students developing high-tech bus

For decades, buses around the world have rolled down city streets with characteristic flat fronts, even though that's not exactly aerodynamic.

The Bellingham Herald

BELLINGHAM, Wash. —

For decades, buses around the world have rolled down city streets with characteristic flat fronts, even though that's not exactly aerodynamic.

They don't have to be that way. In fact, the driver doesn't even have to sit at the left front, and passengers don't have to load across from the driver.

Western Washington University students working near Bellingham's waterfront are exploring new concepts as they work to create a low-weight, high-efficiency bus. Undergraduates from various majors are doing everything from materials testing to body design, with the goal of having a prototype ready in 2013.

"Three years sounds like a lot, but it's going to fly by," said Steven Fleishman, WWU assistant professor of engineering technology and project manager.

The project is funded by a $730,000 earmark won by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

There are new hybrid buses on the road, but many of them are "hybridized" versions of existing technologies, which brings marginal benefits, Fleishman said. Other efforts are looking at radically new designs and technologies that might be too far outside the box for consumers' tastes.

This project aims to push the envelope but still create something that private industry could mass produce and sell in as soon as five years. Market research suggests a demand of up to 3,000 of the vehicles a year in the U.S.

"Our goals are really to transfer the technology we gain through this research and transfer that to a potential manufacturer," Fleishman said.

Here is what they want in a small bus:

-A low-floor, 24-foot-long paratransit bus holding 15 people.

-20 miles per gallon (the current standard for a bus that size is 9 mpg) of alternative fuel.

-Cruising range of 300 miles and top speed of 70 mph.

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-31.25-foot turning radius.

-Either a low-emission hybrid or no-emission electric vehicle (no petroleum fuels allowed).

-Reconfigurable interiors for different uses.

The low-hanging apples are reducing weight by using advanced materials and improving aerodynamics, said Mark Dudzinski, lab technician for the project. Kitsap Transit donated an all-electric bus the students can work from, and private industries are providing high-tech materials and are helping with consulting. For example, instead of carbon fiber, students are testing and think they'll be able to use a thermoplastic composite.

Students also are creating foam bus models, which are tested in a wind tunnel for aerodynamics.

For Bryce Underwood, who graduates with a bachelor's degree in industrial technology after winter quarter, the project offers an opportunity to learn more than he would in the classroom. For example, he's learning about composite materials. It also feels good to contribute to a larger project that could someday drive city streets, he said.

Underwood received credit for a hybrid bus course he took last summer, but work on this project comes without pay or credit.

The work is occurring at the Port of Bellingham's Technology Development Center, off F Street and Roeder Avenue. The 10,000-square-foot center opened in fall 2009 for use by WWU and Bellingham Technical College.

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