Eco-marathon tests life in the slow — but eco-friendly — lane

Don’t tell his professors, but Adewale Taiwo will be graduating this weekend.

Oh, he’s still got a few more classes to attend. Even a few more finals to take.

“But this,” Taiwo said, gesturing to the fiberglass body and the hydrogen fuel cell tucked inside the car he and his teammates have built, “is my cap and gown.”

Their ceremony will be the Shell Eco-marathon, three days of futuristic car craziness that has attracted teams from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Guatemala to compete on design and energy efficiency.

The event starts Friday at Discovery Green in downtown Houston.

The Eco-marathon began as a bet between two Shell Oil Co. scientists back in 1939 to see who could design an engine that would stretch a gallon of gasoline the farthest.

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It resurfaced in the United States seven years ago. Now held in Houston, the event draws participants from across the Americas. Royal Dutch Shell also sponsors Eco-marathons in Europe and Asia.

The goal is to promote fuel efficiency, as well as awareness of job opportunities in the industry.

“You might think it’s just gasoline, it’s kind of boring,” David Dudek, Shell’s research manager for fuels technology for the Americas, told a group of University of Houston students this week as they toured the Shell Technology Center. “It’s not.”

Just last week, he said, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed reducing the amount of sulfur emissions allowed from gasoline.

“That’s going to have a dramatic impact on a company like Shell and on refiners,” Dudek said.

He and his colleagues offered insight into the research that goes into developing the company’s products. But at the Eco-marathon, for cars that use gasoline at all, the goal is to use as little as possible.

Last year’s winning car, built by a team of high school students from Indiana, sipped at a miserly rate of 2,188 miles per gallon.

But that’s not the only category of competition.

Taiwo and his teammates, Michael Aselin and Brian Gibbons, built a car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

Another team from UH, made up of Joseph Awino, Quan Ta, Ivan Serrano and Brian Liu, will compete with a car that runs on biodiesel.

The students are all seniors majoring in mechanical engineering technology; the competition is their final project.

“We’ve not only learned how to be engineers, but how to fabricate our designs,” Ta said.

That’s an important real-world lesson.

“There’s no use designing something if you can’t make it,” Liu said.

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They have taken their car on a few test runs, drawing curious glances from passing students and faculty.

“Some people think we’re just taking a go-kart around campus,” Ta said.

Serrano — chosen as driver because he weighs the least — estimates the top speed at 23 miles per hour, although he’s never driven it that fast.

Each lap of the course around Discovery Green is 0.6 mile, and the cars must complete 10 laps; Shell says the average speed is about 15 miles per hour.

Awino said the team originally considered using propane but switched to biodiesel, in part because it’s a hot technology.

And unlike the diesel fuel of the past, today’s diesel is as clean or cleaner than gasoline, he said.

But no fossil fuels beat a hydrogen fuel cell for emissions — they are zero-emission engines.

A student team used the fuel cell for last year’s Eco-marathon, and Aselin said it will probably be used for research after the competition.

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Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of materials. This year’s team is using welding gas.

Fuel cells convert hydrogen to electricity, producing water as a byproduct; the electricity powers the motor.

The students have spent thousands of hours working on the cars.

They’re ready.

Sort of.

Aselin went to last year’s Eco-marathon, and he knows that building an experimental vehicle is always a work-in-progress.

“There were teams that showed up with their cars in pieces,” he said. “We’re not worried.”

Taiwo and Gibbons shot him a look.

“Well,” he amended. “We’re a little worried.”