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Alternative energy research fund helps drive innovators

When Matthew Liberatore, E09, started a hybrid-car racing team at the School of Engineering two years ago, he had no environmentalist ambitions whatsoever. He just liked to go fast.

An avid motorcycle racing fan, Liberatore got the idea when he came across an advertisement for an international racing competition for student-designed cars. "I knew we had to have a student team at Tufts," says the mechanical-engineering major. "But I was not thinking hybrids. I was thinking race cars with regular combustion engines."

Inspired, he hung posters around campus looking for like-minded motor enthusiasts. He was soon joined by graduate student Erica Belmont, E04, EG08, a longtime car hobbyist who had done some amateur racing and was excited about the prospect of designing a fast car.

They were skeptical when Richard Wlezien, professor and chair of mechanical engineering, suggested they build a hybrid car for competition. Enticed by an offer of lab space and some startup funds, the two reluctantly decided to give hybrid design a try. It was not long before their enthusiasm for the emerging technology shifted into high gear.

"After doing some research we started to see the bigger picture and the implications of providing energy-efficient alternatives," Liberatore says. "This is the way car design is going."

Now the team has grown to more than a dozen students and, with support from the Peter and Denise Wittich Family Fund for Alternative Energy Research, plans to compete in the Formula Hybrid International Student Competition this coming May at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

At the competition, their car must accelerate quickly from zero to 60 mph; navigate a short course of sharp turns; and complete a 13-mile road race. Their design will be judged not on speed but on performance and efficiency.

"Tufts Hybrid Racing has had a big impact on me," Liberatore says. "My plan is to build my career around more efficient fuel systems and the team is what sent me in this direction."