URBANA — It's quite an accomplishment to build a vehicle that can achieve 2,000 miles per gallon, but would your average driver want to drive that futuristic car down Green Street?
A team of University of Illinois students have set out to create not only a highly fuel-efficient vehicle from scratch but a vehicle that has, as one student said, "driveability."
Vehicles that garner over 2,000 miles per gallon tend to "defy practicality," said Sanat Bhole, a senior in mechanical engineering who is leading a UI team.
"We went for real-world feasibility," when designing and building a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, he said.
The group, composed of students majoring in mechanical engineering, industrial engineering, chemical engineering, physics and more, heads to Houston this week to compete in the Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2013.
From April 4 to 7, about 110 teams from universities and high schools across North and South America will compete in categories such as prototype gasoline vehicle; urban concept electric battery vehicle; super mileage vehicle; and more. The goal of the competition, started in 1939 between Shell scientists and expanded to include students across the globe, is to challenge students to design, build and test the most energy-efficient vehicles imaginable, according to the company. Last year's winning vehicle achieved 2,188 miles per gallon.
This will be the second year the team has participated in the Shell competition and in the hydrogen fuel-cell urban concept category. Those competitors focus more on practical designs, unlike the prototype divisions, which encourage maximum efficiency.
The category this team has entered invites designers to build a car operated much like cars you'd find on the road today, with standard components such as steering wheels. They're also told to consider different driving conditions, such as in rain or through stop-and-go traffic, when designing the vehicle.
Last year, the UI team placed first in its division, but members saw room for improvement.
"Last year we got 66 miles per gallon. When we looked at that number we realized it's not all that impressive. We wanted to push ourselves much more this year," Bohle said.
"We're looking for a huge improvement," sophomore Rohan Gupta added. The aim? 100 miles per gallon.
They also would like the vehicle to accommodate two people, instead of a single driver.
To boost the vehicle's efficiency, one of the areas they zeroed in on was the car's chassis. Last year's was made of an aluminum honeycomb design, and aluminum was used for the axles and roll bar. That chassis weighed more than 70 pounds.
Working since the fall, the group has gone through several design iterations, said sophomore Andrew Kerr. The new chassis weighs about 30 percent less than last year's.
The chassis now features a carbon-fiber Nomex honeycomb, a sandwich-like design in which carbon-fiber sheets are placed on both sides of the Nomex, a synthetic material.
The result is a much lighter chassis.
"It's super-lightweight. You could lift one with your whole finger — if the battery was not in it," Bohle said.
The team's work involved collecting and analyzing data from last year's vehicle, sketching designs, producing them with computer-aided design software, designing molds, ordering materials, scheduling fabrication, and more.
The team also worked on improving last year's design to make it much more aerodynamic. To do so they analyzed the aerodynamics of last year's car to find out how many watts were lost due to air flow. This year's body is considerably more aerodynamic, they said. Another area they wanted to improve was the efficiency of the power delivery from the 5-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell to the wheels.
The team's budget is around $56,000, and they are supported by the College of Engineering and several corporate sponsors, including Hella automotive lighting company, MAS Epoxies, Nexteer Automotive, I2CNER, Nuvera Fuel Cells and the World Premier International Research Center Initiative.
At the competition, teams will have their vehicle inspected to make sure it meets the category's requirements as well as safety requirements. A driver then must drive it around a 0.6 mile-track set up in downtown Houston around the Discovery Green Conservancy. Vehicles must complete 10 laps, or 6 miles, at a minimum average speed of 15 miles per hour.
The prize is a trophy and $2,000, but the real reward, many team members said, has been the learning experience that has come along with designing the vehicle and working with a group of students with backgrounds in a wide range of subjects.
"I've definitely fallen in love with the automotive industry," Gupta said.
"By designing and building fuel-efficient vehicles ... these student innovators demonstrate that we can work together now to find more solutions to the energy challenge and make a difference for tomorrow," said Ignacio Gonzalez, project manager with Shell Eco-marathon Americas in an e-mail to The News-Gazette.
Participation in the Eco-marathon also can help students figure out what they want to study before moving on to a full-time job, Gonzalez said.
As an example, he pointed to a former member of the "ShopGirls," an all-girls team from Granite Falls High School outside of Seattle, Wash., who went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A former member of the Louisiana Tech team credited his experience in the competition as a kick-off to a career at Shell, Gonzalez said. And several other competitors from around the globe have gone on to become Shell employees.
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