Eco-marathon aims for extreme mileage

More than 1,000 high school and college students, working in teams, are designing and building cars for the sixth running of the Shell Eco-marathon Americas later this month.

They hope to push vehicle fuel-efficiency to levels that put contemporary, conventional vehicles to shame.

How fuel efficient are we talking about?

Consider this: the record for the event is 2,564 mpg (0.0003900156 gallons per mile), set by Quebec’s Université Laval team.

A vehicle of this efficiency could travel 150,000 miles – the life expectancy of many cars—using a mere 58 gallons of fuel. And to think, Eco-marathon has its roots in a 1939 challenge in which a Shell scientists attained 50 miles per gallon.

According to Shell, the event is intended to challenge young innovators to figure out how to improve the fuel efficiency of automobiles, with the possibility that technology born or refined in the challenge could lead to improvements in mainstream automobiles.

The hydrogen-fueled Tigergen III, from the University of Missouri, is one vehicle that will run in this year’s challenge. According to the team’s website, Tigergen III “uses two Horizon hydrogen fuel cells to convert energy from hydrogen gas into electricity at an output power of about 2 kilowatts. The electricity produced by the fuel cell is then used to power the vehicle’s electric motor.”

There is also a plug-in electric car from the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. The body is constructed of carbon fiber, which is normally used because of its light weight and high strength. Carbon fiber is expensive, but the cost of it is partially offset by the fact that the car will require a less powerful engine and, of course, less fuel.

Some students, such as those at Mater Dei High School in Indiana, are preparing more than one vehicle (four in this case) with hope that one of them will win. This is cost prohibitive, but it will be interesting to see the outcome. Last year, the school took took second place in the urban car division with 586.6 miles per gallon, an improvement of 150 mpg over it’s 2010 performance. That second place  showing earned the team $2,500.

Samaritans support the projects via donations and volunteering as well. One example is Kari Hanson. She volunteered to help at Granite Falls High School in Washington and received a $5,000 check from a local business that declared her volunteer of the year. She generously donated that cheque to the team she was helping to help fund their trip to Houston.

Nicholas Brown, EarthTechling