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This week marked the 26th Shell Eco-marathon, a competition where innovation reigns supreme.  Laval University from Canada took top honors at the Houston, Texas event, as did Purdue University and the Cicero North Syracuse High School team from New York.


While the Eco-marathon (a competition similar to SMV that encourages teams of students to build fuel efficient vehicles) as we know it has only been around since 1985, Shell scientists held their own version of the event way back in 1939.  Of course, this involved a bunch of scientists taking bets on whose car could get the best miles per gallon, so it is a little different from the competition today.

There are two types of competitors at the Eco-marathon: prototype models (cars that try to be the most fuel efficient while meeting basic safety measures) and UrbanConcept (vehicles that are similar to cars you’d see on roadways but are still as fuel efficient as possible).  Car models can run on pretty much anything, including:

  • Diesel
  • Petrol
  • Liquefied Petroleum Gas
  • Biodiesel
  • Ethanol
  • Solar
  • Electric
  • Biofuels
  • Gas to Liquids

Prizes are awarded based on categories.  This year in the Prototype section, Laval got 2,487.5 miles per gallon in the combustion engine category.  The Cicero team took top honors in the fuel cell/hydrogen cars with 780.9 miles per gallon while Purdue won the solar competition with 4,548 mpg.

Purdue Solar Car

Purdue students were undoubtedly pretty thrilled about their performance in the solar category.

Over on the UrbanConcept side, the Mater Dei High School from Evansville, IN won the combustion engine category with 437.2 mpg.  Other awards, such as People’s Choice, Design, and Best Team Spirit were doled out, as you can see in this complete list of winners.

So it’s clear that this competition is set up a little differently than the Supermileage Vehicle event.  It’s run by a private company (all Eco-marathoners run Shell fuels, natch), there are fewer specs for the vehicles, and it’s open to students from all walks of life, rather than collegiate engineers.  Put simply, I think the whole thing is great.  Hopefully I can learn more about it and report back, but from what I do know, the set-up seems pretty neat.  Shell is encouraging fuel efficiency in any form and giving kids a chance to experiment and think about different ways of doing things without having to invest millions of research dollars (although I think those investments are important, too).  Students are a fantastic resource, and as a student, I say capitalize on us!  Use us (within reason)!  We need experience, you need people doing work, and we may as well be doing work that can make a difference, right?

If I’ve figured out anything, it’s that there is no single clear way forward.  There are a million ways to skin a cat, and while hopefully we won’t have to figure out a million different paths forward from here on out, we certainly need all these ideas and skill sets.  Way to go, Eco-marathon competitors!

Mercedes Station Wagon

Not quite the same car, but you get the idea

The first car I ever drove was a 1982 Mercedes station wagon.  It was a beast: big as a boat and  rumbly with diesel power.  But it was expensive to maintain, and my mom eventually sold it to my godfather, Bill, when I was still pretty young.  And I was amazed to learn that he ran it off leftover restaurant grease.  That’s not diesel…right?

Enter the new world of diesel: biodiesel.  Made out of soybean oil, canola oil, or just leftover cooking grease, biodiesel is a renewable energy source that, like ethanol, can be blended with regular diesel or used on its own.

But biodiesel has some unique properties that are very encouraging for those looking to reduce oil dependence and greenhouse gases (and that’s all of us, right?).

  • Biodiesel can be used in normal diesel engines with little or no modifications to the car itself
  • Biodiesel reduces CO2 emissions by almost 80% from regular diesel emissions
  • Biodiesel can be made at home without lots of fancy equipment or extensive chem knowledge.  Take a hint from godfather Bill!
  • Emissions of just about everything (particulate matter, carbon monoxide, you name it) are reduced when using biodiesel.

So what are the downsides?  First off, diesel has a pretty bad rap (think choking black fumes spewing from an 18-wheeler).  Some people are just scared off by the word diesel, so convincing the public that biodiesel isn’t so bad might be hard.  And while biodiesel is getting cheaper (and has been deemed the most cost-effective diesel alternative), it may still be a little pricier than diesel.  Also, biodiesel can be tricky to find, although it is becoming more widely available.


Finally, something from McD's that is good for you!

Of course, you could always just go to your nearest McDonald’s and bring home some leftover Big Mac grease.

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August 2020