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Shell Eco-marathon Europe Kicks Off in Rotterdam

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France's Team Microjoule takes advantage of a few rain-free hours on Friday to take the lead in Shell Eco-marathon Europe 2013. The blue car pictured behind is an electric car with solar panels, WaveRider, designed by students from Universidad Católica San Antonio, Spain.

More than 3,000 high school and college students from 24 countries are gathered in the port city of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, this weekend for a race for fuel efficiency. More than 180 cars are entered in Shell Eco-marathon Europe 2013, where students design and build super-low-mileage vehicles, and then prove them on a 10-mile (16.3-kilometer) street circuit.

Rainy and windy weather has complicated the schedule, because the low-slung vehicles in the prototype category cannot compete in wet conditions. Their tires not only are slim, they are pumped to high pressure and have little grip on slick roads. A team from Salzburg, Austria nearly lost the cover over the driver’s cab in a strong gust of wind on one run, and the driver had to hold the top in place as she finished the lap.

Nevertheless, last year’s winner, Team Microjoule from the technical school La Joliviere in Saint-Sébastien-sur-Loire, already has bested its 2012 performance, with a run of 2888.46 kilometers per liter (6,794.1 miles per gallon), 55 km/l better than last year. Team Microjoule stands in first place so far in the gasoline-powered prototype division, but the competition continues through Sunday.

Microjoule’s result is not yet near the competition record it set for its category in 2011: 3,688 km/l  (8,674.7 mpg), but that race was run on an more forgiving track on a race course in France. For the past two years, Shell Eco-marathon Europe has been run on the streets of Rotterdam around the Ahoy convention center, on a circuit that includes five 90° turns. Every bump in the road and every turn eats fuel, on this course as on all highways. Eco-marathon competitors attempt to curb their fuel consumption with lightweight, aerodynamic design, and also with a gentle driving technique, but they are disqualified if they drive too slowly and need to complete the circuit in 39 minutes.

Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb says it’s appropriate that the fuel-efficiency competition is taking place in the low-lying industrial city. The city is especially vulnerable to consequences of climate change like sea-level rise, and yet its economy is heavily reliant on its fossil fuel refineries and import complexes; Rotterdam is looking for solutions that will protect both the environment and the economy. “Rotterdam is working on a clean, green, healthy and economically strong city,” Aboutaleb said in prepared welcome remarks he made for the competition. Of the students competing this weekend, he said, “I hope their innovative ideas will be an inspiration for many people.”