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Students Target Miles Per Gallon Record

Challenging the 2,564 Mpg Record, High School, University Squads Race To Finish Their Super-Mileage Vehicles
A Team working on their car

University of Missouri students are racing to finish their futuristic “TigerGen III” hydrogen-powered vehicle. And, at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, five senior engineering students are readying their lightweight, plug-in electric car with its carbon fiber shell. Their big concern? Making sure a driver can fit inside it.

In California, students at Monrovia High School are confident that their three-wheeled, computer-controlled vehicle will be a winner this year. And, at Mater Dei High School in Indiana, students are putting the finishing touches on four vehicles and hoping one will prove to be the most fuel-efficient.

More than 1,000 innovative high school and university students across the Americas are fast approaching the sixth annual Shell Eco-marathon Americas in Houston.

The event challenges students to build, design and compete with their high-mileage vehicles in competitions held annually in Europe, the Americas and Asia. Shell Eco-marathon brings together future leaders in science and engineering who are passionate about finding solutions to global energy challenges.

From March 29 through April 1, students and their fuel-efficient vehicles will navigate the streets of downtown Houston, amid the skyscrapers, and strive to break the astounding 2,564.8 miles per (one) gallon achieved in 2011 by Quebec’s Université Laval team, which will compete again this year.

That far outperformed the 50 miles per gallon attained by a Shell scientist in 1939 in a challenge that has evolved into today’s Shell Eco-marathon. Since then, the event has brought together thousands of students from more than 30 countries to put their futuristic vehicles to the test.

“Shell Eco-marathon is an important part of the energy challenge facing our planet,” says Mark Singer, Global Project Manager. “The future will require a mosaic of energy solutions, and we believe we’re contributing to a smarter energy future with more responsible options for our customers and credible advice for our markets and policymakers. Shell Eco-marathon is an amazing experience for students and spectators alike.”

‘Amazing Experience,’ Indeed

The event has sparked intense competitions between high schools and between nearby universities, among other rivalries. In particular, Los Angeles-area universities see who can best each other annually, as do several Texas universities, including the University of Houston, the University of Texas at El Paso and for the first time this year, Rice University. Some Texas high schools would also like to claim state winner’s rights.

Never mind local rivalries, says the Stevens Institute team. Team members have high hopes for its first-ever Shell Eco-marathon entry, which will compete in the electric prototype class, comprised of futuristic vehicles seeking to reduce drag and maximize efficiency. “We expect to do quite well,” says senior Steve Rawson. “With some of the initial numbers we have from our design, we look to finish with about 400-or 500 miles/kWh and first in the class.”

At the University of Houston, the Superleggera team expects its entry to get 1,000 miles on a single tank of gas. But, the engineering students have been short of one major ingredient – cash – and they are actively seeking sponsors.

Good Samaritans Help

Supporters certainly can make a difference. The University of Alaska at Fairbanks’ electric vehicle in 2011 cost about $5,000 in supplies and another $2,500 in travel, and the team won Wired magazine’s unofficial “Down to the Wire” award for its last-minute efforts to get its funding. This year, the automotive engineering students are busy building additional vehicles, adding to the costs.

Teams get help from various good Samaritans. At Granite Falls High School in Washington, team volunteer Kari Hanson recently received the volunteer of the year award from a local business and she donated her $5,000 check to help fund the team’s trip to Houston. “Shell Eco-marathon Americas takes academic learning from the classroom and applies it to something real and tangible, but it also teaches us life and workforce skills they can put to use in the real world,” she says.

Several teams have websites to keep their communities informed of their Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2012 progress and seek donations.

Students Gain from Their Experiences

Shell Eco-marathon participants eagerly talk about how the competition has equipped students for careers in energy and technology. Allen White, faculty advisor of the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology team, says graduates have received job offers from Chrysler, Cummins Engine, Caterpillar and Rolls-Royce, among others.

MacKenzie Sellers, past president of the Purdue University Solar Racing team in 2007 and 2008, also works at Rolls-Royce, mostly with aerospace gas turbine engines. “My experience on the solar racing team prepared me for my career,” she says.

In addition to the student competition, Shell along with media sponsor The New York Times, will host the 2012 Energy Summit: Earth 2050: The Nexus of Food, Energy, Water. The two-day symposium will be attended by a variety of leaders representing policy, the environment, business and academia.