Dr. Bryan Willson, Methanol Marathon Faculty Advisor, Continues AVTC Legacy at Colorado State University Energy Institute

Written by: Katy Mueller and Jamison Bair

Colorado State University has a rich legacy in Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions (AVTC). Over the past three years the CSU Vehicle Innovation team (VIT) has been working at the Powerhouse Energy Institute Campus, a world renowned energy industry research and testing facility.

The team has been working on the most recent project in the AVTC, EcoCAR 3, alongside the man who initiated CSU’s first involvement with the Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition series nearly thirty years ago in the first AVTC the Methanol Marathon, Dr. Bryan Willson.

Sitting in the Energy Institute with Bryan Willson, the Executive Director of the CSU Energy Institute, he talked about his involvement with EcoCAR3 and the greater Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition (AVTC) has been.

“I came to CSU in August 1988, and was hired to reinvigorate our senior design program,” he said. “I was looking for an ambitious design project that we could really rally around and after some weeks, we heard of the Methanol Marathon competition.”

However, at the time of the Methanol Marathon, CSU didn’t have a place to house the creation of the project, much less an automotive engineering curriculum. Willson said his senior design program entered the competition anyway.

“We put together a team, and we didn’t have any programs in vehicles at all, nothing in vehicles or engines. We didn’t even have much of an energy program at CSU,” Willson said.

The team worked on the Methanol Marathon vehicle in the basement of the CSU Engineering building from 1988-1989. “We borrowed bits and pieces of space, at one point I had activities going on in seven different places,” he recalled.

At final competition, the team had the most innovative alternative fuel concept that generated dimethyl ether (DME) from the M85 fuel to assist in extremely low temperature starting. They won the 1st place awards for Conversion Design and Fabrication and for their final Oral Presentation. They had the 2nd overall most fuel efficient vehicle of 15 teams involved.

Willson said that over the course of the next few years, CSU drastically increased the amount of research on new vehicle technologies. His teams competed in the next two AVTC competitions, the Natural Gas Vehicle Challenge from 1990-1993 and the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Challenge in 1992-1993.


Willson said that over the course of these competition series, they had begun creating new vehicle technologies that were receiving funding, making splitting work in several different places more problematic than in previous years.

“It all came to a head in 1992, because now I had to start delivering on these and I still didn’t have a laboratory,” he said.

Willson said that was when he began trying to find lab space for the technology his teams were creating.

“So, I looked for a creative solution and the power plant was vacant and abandoned so,” he paused to gesture around at what is now the Energy Institute Powerhouse Campus, “the rest is history.”

The Energy Institute Powerhouse Campus, a once abandoned power plant, has since grown to become a 100,000 square foot, globally recognized energy research and educational facility. Although Bryan Willson has seen much success over the last 25 years as the Directory of the Energy Institute, he has not forgotten the Methanol Marathon team that started it all.


Although Bryan Willson has seen much success over the last 30 years as the Directory of the Energy Institute, he has not forgotten the Methanol Marathon team that started it all.

When asked about his fondest memory of those years, he smiled.

“That sense of comradery. We were the cocky kids without anything to lose and no reputation to protect,” Willson laughed. “It was just a really fun group of students.”

In the EcoCAR 3 Competition, The CSU Vehicle Innovation Team still maintains the values established by Dr. Wilson in the first AVTC competition. The Vehicle Innovation Team still holds the same goal of delivering cutting edge technology and the long history of success in AVTC’s drives the CSU team to finish the EcoCAR 3 Year 4 Competition as a top team.