This April, a team from UCSB will compete for the second time in the Shell Gasoline Eco-Marathon, a contest that challenges students to design and build vehicles with unprecedented fuel efficiency. According to a Shell press release, last year’s winning team - a group of high school students - created a vehicle able to travel 2,843 miles on a gallon of gas, and was awarded a $10,000 prize.
This year, UCSB’s team is somewhat of an underdog. It consists of only five UCSB students, a fact that team-member Josh Jimenez said sets them back. “Most groups will have teams of five on each component [of the vehicle],” he says. Yet he and his comrades in the undertaking - Aleksander Stanisic, Quentin Orciuch, Michael Scamardo, and Erik Stassinos - remain optimistic.
The goal is the use of existing technology in new more efficient ways. While no one is re-inventing the internal combustion engine, creativity is essential. For instance, with the electronic fuel injection system, by far the most fuel-efficient method in automotive technology today, the UCSB team had the problem of storing compressed air for the air-injection system they planned to build. “We’re thinking of using this,” said Stenisic, holding up a plastic disposable water bottle and proving that, for this UCSB team, creativity is in no short supply.
This is the five students’ senior project at UCSB; however, their interest in the competition goes beyond the grade, just as the competition will have impact beyond the prize money. “We’re working with technology that can be translated to the auto industry,” Stenisic said. Jimenez agreed, saying that they’re doing exactly what automotive companies are: “pushing efficiency to increase performance and fuel economy.”
The efficiency of the vehicle comes from its weight - it is built primarily out of a carbon-fiber composite, an ultra-light material. Carbon fiber is able to do the same job as steel while being five times lighter, though carbon-fiber car bodies do present a problem with safety. “Ultra lights would be safe only if all vehicles were ultra lights,” Stenisic explained, noting that carbon fiber will not stand up to steel in a collision.
Scamardo points out that many nonstructural elements of mass-produced cars - hoods, for example - could be replaced with carbon fiber without compromising safety, and the technological improvement of the composite is moving quickly. The composite the UCSB team is using is 165 percent stronger and 38 percent lighter than the most advanced version just two years ago. This should be good news for Orciuch, who was in the UCSB entry when it crashed last year. He was uninjured in the incident.
As is the entire car-driving public, the team members are well aware that gas mileage is a leading concern. “It’s pulled people away from big SUVs,” Stassinos said. And it’s a problem that is not likely to be solved by natural energy sources, as solar and wind power don’t have the capacity to create enough energy to move even the lightest of cars. The problem of gas mileage has to be solved with an increase in efficiency, and that’s what the contest is all about.