Student teams rev their engines for Shell Eco-marathon in Motor City

HOUSTON – University of Houston engineering seniors Roberto Guerra and Alberth Chavez have a big job this weekend.

Flanked by their crew of local high school students and the 60-pound steel frame of a bullet-shaped car at Houston City Hall on Wednesday, they said they’re planning to test out the car’s methane-fueled engine that could, if all goes smoothly, get the equivalent of 200 to 300 miles to the gallon.

Getting it right would bring them one step closer to the Shell Eco-marathon in Detroit next month, a fuel-efficiency competition that will draw more than 1,000 college and high school students from around the United States and from Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico and Canada.

They’ll see who can get the most out of their souped-up vehicles using compressed natural gas, biofuels, gasoline and diesel. Last year’s winner in Houston had a nearly unstoppable machine that could get 3,000 miles per gallon, according to Royal Dutch Shell, which has sponsored the event in the United States for nine years.

For Guerra and Chavez, finding a gasoline station that carries compressed natural gas won’t be too difficult after the fuel’s adoption in commercial fleets, but getting the right tank for it might be harder after they didn’t hear back from a specialized tank supplier. They’ll have to improvise. Still, Chavez says he isn’t nervous.

“We’ve been through this with last year’s prototype – we know that you get more done in the last couple of days,” Chavez said. “We’re sure we’re going to get it running.”

Chavez, Guerra and their youthful team of high school-aged welders, steel cutters and fabricators from Elsik High School in Alief, who assembled the steel car, are more than halfway through 2,000 required hours of work on their CNG-fired vehicle and another that runs on a natural-gas-to-liquids fuel.

They’re one team out of six that Houston-area universities and high schools are sending to Motor City in early April. After hosting the Eco-marathon in the nation’s energy capital for five years, Shell is moving the competition to Detroit, the mobility capital.

Shell spokesman Niel Golightly said the Anglo-Dutch oil major sees big long-term benefits in training up young problem solvers to tackle the energy industry’s biggest challenge – feeding massive energy demand over the next five decades in an environmentally friendly way.

“Part of our challenge as we look out over the next 50 years or so is how we provide the most sustainable, the most accessible, the cleanest low-carbon energy that we possibly can,” Golightly said.

“Well, 3,000 miles a gallon isn’t going to be in your Prius any time soon, but if we can help facilitate that kind of thinking and innovation and help train a whole new generation of engineers to develop those solutions, that’s part of what we think is the right thing to do for us,” he said.