Student-made zero emissions car rolls to the starting line

Students say the real EcoCar prize is leading technological change and learning new skills

Richard Cairney - 27 March 2019

(Edmonton) University of Alberta engineering students are travelling to the U.S. this week to race against teams from North and South America in a clean-energy vehicle competition.

(UPDATE: The EcoCar team won first-place on track in the prototype-hydrogen category, achieving the energy equivalence of 1895 MPG (U.S.). The team also won the Innovation Prize.)

And even after pouring thousands of hours into designing and building their own zero-emissions car, the U of A EcoCar team says winning the race isn't its priority.

"Our main goal has never been to win the competition," said Carter Trautmann, an engineering physics student in his fourth year of studies. "It's to improve engineering education and the engineering degree experience for students."

The team achieves this by doing things the hard way. For example, while many of their competitors take advantage of ready-to-use power systems, the U of A team buys parts and builds its own systems.

"We are one of the only-if not the only team-that designs and builds our own electrical and control systems for our fuel cell stack," said Elizabeth Gierl, who's in her fourth year of electrical engineering and leads EcoCar's fuel cell team.

"If we took the easiest, shortest path, we'd be reducing opportunities to learn," adds Trautmann.

The future is ours

The idea of the Shell Eco-Marathon Americas competition is simple: design and build a car that uses the least amount of energy to travel a set distance. The U of A team's car, named Sofie, competes in the prototype-hydrogen category. With her slick-black carbon fibre shell, skinny tires and an aerodynamic, torpedo-shaped body, Sofie is a single-seat zero-emissions vehicle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. In previous years, the U of A team vehicles have achieved the energy efficiency equivalent to driving from Vancouver to Calgary on one gallon of gas.

Gierl says being part of the team helps teach future engineers that they can make the world a better place by using and developing new technologies.

She's inspired by the words of a mentors who said the team is demonstrating that new clean energy technology is not the stuff of science fiction-that challenges like reducing vehicle emissions are attainable.

"One of the things we're trying to show is that technologies that we see as something far in the future are a lot more advanced than they seem. And as undergraduate students building our own zero-emissions car, we want to show that these technologies-as much as we think they are something for the future-can be used now," she said.

Developing new skills

Team members say being involved in a student project means making sacrifices. Time spent working on the vehicle means less time studying. The other side of the coin is that they develop valuable technical and problem-solving skills and experiences.

"I'm studying in a program that is infamous for being theory-heavy and as project manager I have an opportunity to touch on physics problems from every sub team," Trautmann said. "I now have experience managing a team of 40 to 50 people."

When she was new to the team, Gierl recalls watching senior team members trying to solve an unexpected technical challenge-and she learned from her teammates how to troubleshoot.

"After seeing them work on things, I knew how to approach problems in a different way," she said. "I had no idea how to start troubleshooting, but now I feel like I have a big box of tools to draw from."

Team spirit

This all-for-one ethos includes the team's selection of drivers. In order to use the least amount of energy during races, drivers are ideally small in physical stature. The lower the combined weight of a driver and vehicle, the less energy they'll use during the race.

Other competitors choose drivers who aren't even part of the design and build team to take the wheel. But the U of A EcoCar driver is always selected from the main team-they will reward an engineer for hard work, even at the cost of expending more energy.

Being part of the team "gives you community within engineering," and adds depth to classroom learning, Gierl says.

"EcoCar has helped me enjoy and fall in love with my degree. I really like the skill set it has given me. It made classes so much more interesting-you can see the application of what you're learning in class and I love all the technical work and getting my hands dirty."

The Shell Eco-Marathon Americas competition runs April 3 to 6 in Sonoma, California.