It’s only a matter of time. Fossil fuel reserves on our planet are limited. It also takes a few hundred million years or so for them to form. Since the industrial revolution about 200 years ago, we have consumed a fantastic amount of them and left a severe impact on our planet. It only makes sense then, to make the technologies we have at our disposal more efficient while looking for alternative, sustainable sources of energy. In that spirit, Shell, a multinational energy company, started the Shell Eco-marathon in 1985. It is a unique mileage challenge which encourages students from around the world to design, build and drive ultra-efficient cars. The three annual events in Asia, Americas, and Europe are attended by students from around the world. And the achievements these enthusiastic student scientists and engineers have managed are quite exciting.
The JUGAAD '14 gasoline prototype category car from K.J. Somaiya College of Engineering, Mumbai, India at Shell Eco-marathon Asia 2014.
The competition officially has two categories. One is the 'Prototype' category where futuristic, streamlined vehicles are built with the primary consideration of reducing drag and maximising efficiency. The other is the 'UrbanConcept' category, where four-wheeled cars are built similar to road-worthy standards. They must meet a series of roadworthiness criteria like modern passenger vehicles, such as having head- and tail lights, doors, a steering wheel, windscreen wipers, etc. This category was introduced in 2003 to broaden the challenge. The aim was to get students to develop fuel-efficient solutions which can be applied to road cars today.
Since this competition involves maximising efficiency, the use of conventional fuels like diesel and petrol is common. However, it is not limited to these. Alternative energy sources or energy from non-fossil fuels was introduced to Shell Eco-marathon. Alternative fuels such battery electric, hydrogen, ethanol, CNG and gas to liquids have added an interesting perspective to this competition. If these technologies take off, we could soon see cars lining up for more than just petrol, diesel and CNG at our pumps.
The PREVO II, a battery electric Urban Concept category participant on track at Shell Eco-marathon Asia 2014.
Apart from the possibility of identifying alternative, sustainable energy sources, this competition also creates an atmosphere that inspires innovation. In body construction, for example, a shift has been seen to lighter materials such as carbon fibre with strength levels similar to that of conventional materials like steel and aluminium. If cars are lighter, they need less energy to move and so are more efficient. Some student teams even build their own engines with ceramic parts which, among other things, offer better insulation and don't wear out easily. Some engines have also been designed to reduce friction and heat to such an extent that they do not require engine oil for the duration of the competition. In regular scenarios, this is not doable, at least with the engines today. Practical technological innovation examples include a prototype equipped with a fuel cell and a system to recover energy from braking. This system has also been seen in Formula 1 and is called the KERS or Kinetic Energy Recovery System. But it was first seen here.
Driving innovation for a sustainable future.
Many developments and innovations by students who participate in the Shell Eco-marathon are commercially sensitive. Their distribution depends on the conditions under which students and their universities have acquired sponsors in order to build a competition-worthy car and make it through the Shell Eco-marathon. Most will not provide ready solutions for mobility issues immediately as they need to be tested, developed and made commercially viable. But right now, what they provide is a positive outlook on the future of energy and mobility.