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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!

Sooo I guess I’m still on this biofuels kick.  Here’s something pretty neat going on in my hometown – Madison, Wisconsin.  Basically, they’re making jet fuel (and regular fuel, too) out of biomass, or leftover biological stuff like waste and plant materials.


Personally, I think my bones make a great 93-octane gasoline.

But I’ll take it easy on the new biofuels now.  I want to ask a question: why the heck haven’t we adopted an entirely new fuel model?

Well, in America, we’re stubborn, individualistic, and set in our ways, for starters.  But there’s something bigger going on here.

Let’s think about it.  For the past 150 years or so, we’ve stuck a pipe in the ground and gotten in return an energy-rich mixture of ancient fossils (thank you, dinos).  It makes our cars go, it powers our tractors, it even starts our rickety old lawnmowers.  Basically, we’ve had it easy, and we coasted along intent on getting the most out of oil as we possibly could.

And now here we are.  Oil is running out, the planet is heating up, and things are generally just going to pot.  We want an answer!  Yet here we sit, most of us still driving fuel-dependent vehicles that get marginally better miles per gallon than cars ten or twenty years ago.  Are we just that resistant to change?  Maybe.

But here’s the thing: right now, there’s not an easy way out of our oil dependency, or even our “dirty energy” dependency.  There is no single front-runner in the biofuel or alternative fuel industry.  Instead, there are all kinds of small, somewhat helpful projects going on, and at this point, we don’t know if we will have one dominant solution or many.  Maybe there is no one solution, or maybe we just haven’t found it yet.  We have no choice but to keep looking, and I give a lot of credit to those who are.  There’s just not an easy fix – hard to admit in a society thrilled with one-click buying and fast ways to lose weight.  We didn’t get here overnight, and we can’t go back overnight.

So the next time you’re wondering why the heck we aren’t all just driving electric cars, think about just how easy we’ve had it.

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August 2020