On the bottom floor of Hicks Hall, a team of six Swarthmore College engineering students are working on a three-wheeler that looks to be part bicycle, part race car and part space capsule. It’s a vehicle for the creativity, talent, and hope of the Swarthmore team and entered in this April’s Shell Eco-Marathon. This annual test of ingenuity challenges student engineers from across the U.S. to build the most fuel-efficient cars of their type. Swarthmore returns for the fourth consecutive year, having tasted success last year in road trials on the streets of Detroit.
Team members meet once or twice a week to improve and test the car, whose aluminum frame goes back to the original Swarthmore entry in the Eco-Marathon three years ago. Each year the car is improved by a new team of young engineers — advised by engineering professor Nelson Macken — incorporating design and technology changes. The rules this year require a Plexiglas rear canopy. The goal is to optimize both range and fuel efficiency as the cars travel a 10-mile circuit.
“We learn as we go,” said team spokesman Alex Siegel of Seattle. “Most of us are used to building things, so we concentrate on improving the hardware.” For instance, the team is now busy creating fiberglass panels modeled on computer designs to minimize drag. Persis Ratouis, who drove in 2015, and Natasha Nogueira, who takes the controls in 2016, have to add weights to meet the 125 pound minimum for the driver, but otherwise the imperative is to keep the car light, but responsive and efficient.
The heart of the machine is a sophisticated hydrogen fuel cell, a tidy $12,000 item which the college’s engineering department happened to have on hand when the first Eco-Marathon car was conceived. The Garnet’s race car competes against other prototypes powered by fuel cells.
“The nightmares come from the little things,” Alex Siegel said. “The most basic things turn out to be most challenging” — like remaking the plumbing connecting the hydrogen fuel supply to the fuel cell following replacement of a pressure regulator.
Bigger schools have more resources for fabricating and testing, and these schools tend to produce “urban concept cars” that are more sophisticated than the prototypes.
“These big teams had actual pit crews,” said Persis, but it was relatively tiny Swarthmore and its four person team which finished third last year in its class. “I was really proud of our group. We did well on a relatively low budget, despite some tense moments.” She said her big concern last year was the Detroit potholes on the road course around Cobo Hall.
“Engineering study is pretty boring,” Alex said. “It’s more about giving you tools to do things. Actual applicable knowledge — like what we use here — is what inspires our love for engineering.”
Information on the 2015 and April 22 -24, 2016 events is at shellecomarathon.us.