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In a college engineering lab, out of the persistent winter weather and snow blanketing Swarthmore’s rolling wooded campus, is a very unusual car. This low-slung, streamline vehicle, comprises of aluminum alloy and fibreglass, cables, electronics and a second-hand hydrogen fuel cell.  Two-metre (6-foot 5’) tall Eric Verthasselt has built this car and petite Emily Lau will drive it, in the hope of winning an extreme energy-efficient driving competition on the streets of Houston, Texas, USA. 

Eric is a senior engineering student with dreams of a career in the automotive industry. The car is his final year project. He considers designing for hydrogen and electric power a worthwhile challenge.

“Eventually something is going to have to replace internal combustion engines,” says Eric. “I think hydrogen has a lot of promise.”

Size matters, knowledge helps

For his height, Eric is fairly light at around 82 kg (180 pounds,) but building a car big enough to hold him would likely put it over the 140 kg weight maximum. His good friend Emily, measuring less than 1.5 metres (4 feet 11 inches) and weighing less than 38 kg, seemed the perfect choice for teammate and driver.

Chemistry student Emily applied her knowledge of the hydrogen-oxygen reaction that creates electrical current in a fuel cell.  “The system in our fuel cell hadn’t run in a long time,” Eric explained.  “We had to work through some errors and malfunctions, but finally got it working.”

It is rare to have a team of two and, Eric notes, this limits disagreements. But there are downsides too: “Our expertise is limited,” he said. “I’ve had to seek experts outside our college for guidance in critical area like welding and electronics design.”

Emily had been worried about driving this homemade car, but test drives have gone well.  Now her only concern is doing her best for her friend and teammate on the streets in central Houston.

Shell Eco-marathon Americas starts April 4, 2013.

Team facts

Team facts

Team name: SWAT
Average age: 21.5 years
Car name: Eleanor
Class: Prototype, electric mobility
Energy type: Hydrogen fuel cell
Unique car features: Fully custom built with a square welded aluminum tube frame under a light aluminum sheet and a fibreglass shell.
Years in the competition: 1
Record to beat: No previous record

Who's on the team?

Eric Verhasselt

Eric Verhasselt

Eric is from Northern New Jersey and going to Swarthmore, keeps him within a two-hour drive of his family home.  He is nearly two meters (6ft 5’) tall, an athlete and engineering senior. 2013 is his first Shell Eco-marathon competition.  He says that large schools can have hundreds of engineering students, but Swarthmore has “fewer than 1,600 students in total and only about 30 engineering graduates a year”!  He wants a career in automotive engineering and believes this experience will help him reach goal.

Emily Lau

Emily Lau

Emily grew up in Villanova, Pennsylvania, a few miles down the road from Swarthmore.  She’s less than 1.5 metres (4 ft 11’) tall and a junior majoring in chemistry and English literature. She plays rugby, and hosts a campus radio show playing hits from musicals. She’s working with Eric on their hydrogen fuel cell car and will be his driver.

She says she got involved because, “We’re friends and I thought it would be fun!” Emily also likes the environmental aspect of hydrogen fuel and hopes to one day work for the US Department of Energy.  With its focus on efficiency and technology innovation, Emily is excited about what the Shell Eco Marathon experience could mean for her future.