Campus & Community

Stevens Senior Design Team Prepares for 2012 Shell Eco-marathon in Houston

Five Stevens Mechanical Engineering majors – Steve Rawson, Isaac Spingarn, Chris Coppola, Dave Bairamian and Nick Gadaleta – will be competing in the 2012 Shell Eco-marathon, which challenges high school and college student teams from around the world to design, build and test energy efficient vehicles and compete to see whose car can go the farthest distance using the least amount of energy. The team, which will also use the car as its senior design project, has already begun to construct its design for the annual competition, which will run from March 29 to April 3 in Houston, TX, home of Shell’s U.S. Headquarters.

Sponsored by Shell, an innovation company involved in groundbreaking technologies, the Eco-marathon competition is right up the ally of Stevens students, who are ready to tackle the world’s most pressing scientific, engineering and technological challenges – in this case, sustainable transport.

Cars at the Shell Eco-marathon have run on petrol, diesel, biodiesel, ethanol, hydrogen, solar power and even plug-in battery technology, reflecting current automotive and energy trends. Teams have used materials ranging from canvas and wood to carbon fiber and honeycomb panels to construct the vehicles, hoping to push the boundaries of energy efficiency. They enter one of two vehicle classes: prototype, focusing on aerodynamics for extreme efficiency; or urban concept, in which the design must include practical features design such as luggage space.

The Stevens team will be competing in the prototype category, which is made up of futuristic streamlined vehicles where the primary design consideration is reducing drag and maximizing efficiency. The team's car will run on plug-in electric and battery power, but most of the fuel efficiency will come from the body shape, which will consist of a very aerodynamic and lightweight design.

One of the particulars that the team was most concerned about was making sure that a driver could fit inside of the car.

“This is one of the things that we’re keeping in mind as reasoning for a given design’s choice,” said Rawson.

Over winter break, the team is going to first construct the frame of the vehicle at home. When the students return to campus, they plan to use the giant CNC machine located in Davidson Lab to carve out a mold for the carbon fiber layout. They will then continue to integrate the two components and later add the other useful subsystems. The team’s design uses a carbon fiber shell and an internal frame consisting of bamboo.

“The shell and its composition is common among most teams,” said Rawson. “However, we decided that we would also use this frame, because we were not sure if we could manufacture the carbon fiber correctly to maintain strength. The frame is made of bamboo because of its light but durable properties, and because the material is fairly cheap to obtain.”

According to Shell rules, the car is supposed to be confined to certain design parameters. The maximum height of the car must be no more than 1 meter; the width no more than 1.3 meters; the length no more than 3.5 meters; and the weight no more than 140 kg. With these restrictions, the Stevens team has diligently managed to fit their car comfortably within those parameters.

The team is also trying to implement a flywheel. The flywheel will be engaged during what would otherwise be “normal breaking.” The team hopes that this will both slow the car and conserve energy.

The competition provides the opportunity for engineers of the future to explore and promote sustainable transport. The event provides the ideal place for students to share ideas from their experiences thus far and find inspiration from one another. Spingarn, for example, races for the Stevens Bike Team and the Stevens Marathon Club, and he has worked to build a number of lightweight bicycle components into the design of the car.  

"Within the electric prototype category, we expect to do quite well,” said Rawson. “This is our first year entering the competition, but with some of the initial numbers we have from design, we look to finish with something like 400 or 500 miles/kWh and first in the category.”