April 13, 2007
California Speedway, Fontana CA, 2007 Shell Eco-marathon:
High school and University teams came from all over North America to compete in the first official Shell Eco-marathon in America. The Eco-marathon has been an annual event in Europe for more than twenty years.
The vehicles students entered varied in fuel from gasoline, hydrogen and solar. The level of sophistication varied as well. Beneath the sophistication, the engineering prowess, the sponsorship and blurry eyes there was a race at stake, and each team was there with the intent to win.
They came bearing vehicles that looked like pods, carved out of a block of foam, formed from plastic or fused. The pods were started by four-stroke engines like a Honda 50cc or 25cc or a fuel cell from industry leader Ballard Power Systems.
Each team was comprised of about eight students, most of them majoring in some type of engineering.
“It’s important to be involved in programs like the Shell Eco-marathon to make people aware of what we can achieve in future transportation,” said Mechanical Engineering major Tom Heckel, team manager for Cal Polys Super Mileage team. “I hope teams like ours will help shape the vehicles people drive years from now and those vehicles will be more environmentally friendly.”
“We want the students to strut their stuff!” Adrian Jurgens, Shell Global Solutions, US.
The teams were already bleary-eyed on Friday morning when they started arriving and mantling the pieces together. There was a group from Texas that had driven straight through the night, a solar group that had purchased their panels on eBay.
On the solar team was a Father that had entered a team like this some 30 years ago, and his son who was now a student at the College of the Redwoods in Eureka, CA. and the two rivals, Cedarville and Cal Poly were working side-by-side on their vehicles.
One could have speculated that the hydrogen team, Team LAAE from Los Altos Academy of Engineering Hacienda Heights, CA would win with their “Infusion.” The French engineering school, ESSTIN, won the 2006 European marathon handily with a hydrogen pod that got the equivalent of 11,634 miles per gallon with only one gallon of gasoline. Talking to the French team, I found out that their car weighed about 100 pounds and was told that they plan to cut even more weight out of the pod next year.
Team LAAE’s “Infusion” entry weighed over three times the ESSTIN. Power-to-weight ratio is the key in these types of contests, whether you’re a fuel cell or an internal combustion engine.
The fuel cell “Infusion” pod was created by the Los Altos Academy of Engineering, which was started by Robert Franz twelve years ago to promote opportunities in mathematics, science, computer science and engineering.
Franz has made a bet with his students, actually with all his students over the last twelve years. The bet is that if they can put their vehicle together and pass all the tests the first time, Franz will shave his mustache. He has only shaved it once in the last twelve years.
Infusion’s pod has three wheels, two in the front and one in the back. Bridgestone and Michelin’s help sponsor the Eco-marathon. Bridgestone “Ecopia” tires were picked because of their low-coefficient of rolling resistance. The first test was fueling.
Once the vehicles were put together they had to go through safety, fueling, braking, starting and running tests.
The other pods went to Jurgens and his crew, where the red-colored gasoline was poured into the beakers that simulated gasoline tanks. The gas was colored to make sure everyone used the same gasoline. The beakers were filled, measured and remeasured. The accuracy of the gasoline would make a difference in the calculations of the miles per gallon.
Infusion’s fuel cell was a Ballard “Nexia” fuel cell that was filled with hydrogen. Mike was the guy to certify that the fuel was filled correctly. Before that could be done the guys had to connect the pump to the tank, but the adaptor was bent, and Mike had already been called to the certification. Frantically, the guys changed the adaptors as Mike walked over. All was well in the end and Infusion was certified.
Passing all the tests the first time!
This was an easy pass for Infusion. Infusion’s braking system has two master cylinders; one master cylinder activates the bicycle braking caliper on the two front wheels. Shell mandates a second redundant braking system, so the second master cylinder activates the caliper on the vehicle’s rear wheel. Franz’s mustache was looking grim.
All went well for the safety test till they got to where the driver’s feet rested.
There was some question because the driver was resting her feet on a 1/8 inch thick sheet of aluminum. A second opinion was called for, and the a-okay was given. We were going for the 360 view test and then off to the figure eight. The 360 view test was the ability for the driver to be able to see all around them. Another test passed, the mustache was starting to glimmer. Jokes were starting to be made.
The space between the fourth and fifth bulkheads holds the fuel cell module, the metal-hydride storage canisters, batteries, regulators, gas lines and valves. The fuel cell module, the ferro-titanium alloy metal-hydride hydrogen storage canisters chemically react to the hydrogen gas at high pressure with the metal-hydride pellets inside them. The hydrogen is stored at a nominal pressure of 147 psig.
Between the fourth and fifth bulkheads lie the inter-connectors that electrify the whole system. They are bolted together at the ends of four steel tubes that run across this space. In the pod, the hydrogen gas is released from the metal-hydride canisters through a series of valves and regulators connected by a quarter-inch OD high-pressure stainless steel tubing to the fuel cell module. This process generates the electricity and powers the vehicle. All that was left was starting the car and running the pod around a figure eight, and the mustache was gone. The driver hit the button that would start the engine. Nothing. Again, nothing. Off came the plastic top and the LAAE guys were looking perplexed. Clearly, at this point, the mustache was staying firmly planted on Franz’s face, but this was crucial, what could have gone wrong? Back to the garage, they all went, to find that one little problem; no one had connected the interconnectors to make the system work.
The driver has to weigh 100 pounds; well 98 pounds because they are allowed to count the 2-pound helmet. The steering shaft runs forward under the monocoque and swivels for easy ingress and egress of the driver. The pod did the figure eight, ran the race the next day and won in their field.
Cal Poly, an internal combustion engine, won the overall championship with almost 2,000 miles per gallon.
The next challenge the Los Altos group was to be a part of is the urban Darpa Challenge. Scion, if you’re reading this, they’d like you to donate a Scion Xb for their car. Last year, a Volkswagen, named Stanley, won.