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Columbia University Students Reinvent the Wheel

Students propose new energy saving, lightweight wheels for busses and transport vehiclesA team of students at Columbia University has made it to the next round of Walmart’ s Better Living Business Plan Challenge.  They achieved their spot in the sustainability-focused competition by yes, reinventing the wheel.  The team has proposed a business venture that would make energy efficient, lightweight composite wheels for buses, trucks and other large vehicles.  Advancing in the competition means a chance to pitch the plan to top Walmart execs and earn seed money to get started.


Lightweight composite wheels are familiar to bicyclists and ATV enthusiasts, but their use in wheels for heavier vehicles has been limited so far.  That could be about to change.  Three of the four members of the team are Boeing employees involved in the distance learning program of the Columbia School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, so a likely inspiration for the project is the growing use of durable, lightweight composite materials in aircraft.

Light Wheels, Heavy Vehicles

Durability is the key to translating composite wheels into use by trucks and other heavy vehicles, and another factor is cost.  If the fuel savings is high enough, even a relatively expensive wheel could result in significant savings for fleets of vehicles, at least the larger ones.   There’s a hungry market out there, too, as both government and corporate fleet owners look to sustainability for cost cutting.  That would include municipal bus fleets to say nothing of the entire Department of Defense, which is aggressively pursuing sustainability as a national security issue, and innumerable commercial fleets including top players like FedEx, Waste Management and of course, Walmart.

Lightweight Composite Wheels

Carbon fiber is one of the composite materials that have come into widespread use for bicycles.  For ATV wheels, a glass-carbon composite is on the market.  One engineering issue to solve is the tendency of composites to crack under pressure, or to shred after being cut, so the ability of composite wheels to withstand brutal ATV racetrack conditions is a good indicator that high performance and high durability can translate out of the cycling world and into other areas.

Image: Wheels by exfordy on

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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