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From Bamboo to Carbon Fiber, Students Innovate Clean Cars at Shell Eco-marathon 2012

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The electric car from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Photo: Brian Clark Howard

“We used bamboo because it is light, strong, and cheap,” explained Nadim Rabbani, 18, the student leader of the Westside Engineering and Geosciences Academy team at the Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2012.

Westside is a high school in Houston, Texas, site of this year’s annual competition, which has high school and college teams from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Brazil racing their futuristic cars around the city’s Discovery Green to see who can get the best gas mileage. Categories include gas engines, ethanol, diesel, electric cars, solar-powered cars, and even hydrogen fuel cells.

“Another green material we are using is hemp fiber for the joints, which is also strong,” said Rabbani, who hopes to attend college next year.

“We ran a gas car here last year, our first year doing this, and this year we have an electric vehicle,” added Rabbani. “This year we completely re-made everything.”

With its bamboo frame and bicycle wheels, the Westside EV (electric vehicle) looks like a low-riding rickshaw, or maybe a makeshift go-kart. Another regional team told reporters that they only spent a total of $125 on their Shell Eco-marathon entrant.

At the other end of the spectrum, some student teams attract tens of thousands of dollars in corporate sponsorships — typically from local engineering and technical businesses — and then use the money to buy space-age materials, from high-grade solar panels to carbon fiber and Lexan, aka bullet-proof glass.

“I learned I don’t like working with carbon fiber, it’s sticky,” said Jared Wampor, a senior at the University of Colorado and member of his school’s race team.

The Purdue University Solar Racing Team is also heavily favored to re-peat last year’s victory in the solar-powered car division. Senior and Chief Engineer Brian Thompson told spectators that his team of 50 undergraduates had raised and spent nearly $100,000 for the materials for their entrant Celeritas. This included the solar panels covering the top of the vehicle, as well as the carbon fiber that makes up most of the car, including the chassis.

 International Competition

Larissa Maiara Palombo, a student from the Universidade Federal De Itajuba in Minas Gerais, Brazil, took a moment to describe her team’s electric vehicle. “We’re about to take our first run, and we’re very excited,” she said. Palombo said she focuses on the team’s finances and management.

In their entrance materials, Palombo’s team, one of five from Brazil, wrote that they spend a lot of time during the rest of the year showing their car to other young people across their country, to try to encourage interest in clean technology and the sciences.

Mathilde Jean-St-Laurent, team manager for Laval University in Quebec, said their cars include a lot of advanced composite materials. Thanks to corporate sponsorships, Laval’s teams are well funded, and have wracked up numerous wins in several categories over the past few years of Shell Eco-marathon competitions (the event has roots in contests between Shell engineers in the 1930s, although modern Eco-marathons between students started in 1985 in Europe).

“We would like to win again, and we have a really great car, but there are a lot of great competitors,” said Jean-St-Laurent. She added that this year, the team’s gas car has a completely new shell, which is lighter and more aerodynamic (it still looks more like a missile than an auto).

Exciting Racing

During morning competition on Saturday, the rear tire dramatically blew out on a Prototype car being driven by a young woman (she declined to be interviewed). Her light car rolled several times, although she walked away unhurt, thanks to the roll bar, shatter-proof materials and other required safety features.

Every time a car from Louisiana Tech University took a lap, the crowd around Discovery Green erupted in cheers. The school from the nearby state swept several categories last year, and continues to dazzle with their futuristic, Aptera-looking cars, although an insider said they have faced some mechanical issues this year.

Hailing from just down the road, the University of Houston teams also received hearty applause for their efforts.

Chris Wolf, a teammember from Houston, said he had learned the value of “measuring twice and cutting once.” He explained, “We had to enlarge our roll bar, since we made it too short at first. We had measured to the driver’s head, but not when he was wearing a helmet.”

So even though drivers have to keep their speed on the six-mile runs as close to 15 mph as possible, the races are still pretty exciting. They also engender a lot of learning and cooperation.

“The atmosphere is really friendly here,” Thompson of Purdue said. “If you need to borrow something from another team, they help you out.”

The Shell Eco-marathon can also clearly lead to careers or advanced degrees. Several students said they are looking forward to jobs in the auto industry in a few months. Laval’s Jean-St-Laurent said she is going on to start a masters in mechanical engineering.

Pam Rosen, a Shell spokesperson, added that the multinational company has hired graduating Eco-marathon participants as interns, who have then gone on to full-time employment.