UPDATE: The Eco Illini team won the Prototype Batter Electric Competition, topping 21 other teams, at the Shell Eco Marathon in early April.
“We are very pleased with these results, and they show us we have a good foundation for next year,” Team President Joe Grigus said. “We see this as a validation of our development this year and hope to carry this work on to next year. We anticipate next year to be much more challenging.”
The Eco Illini achieved 152 miles per kilowatt-hour, or 5,123 MPG equivalent (theoretical if gasoline were used).
Walking into the Engineering Student Project Lab, all your senses are infiltrated. You strap on safety goggles to protect from potentially harmful sawdust, while the sounds of people collaborating and motors running hum through the air.
Members of Illinois’ Eco Illini Supermileage team laugh and chat as they go about sanding models and examining spokes on a wheel. On the wall behind them, a huge Shell Eco-Marathon check serves as a constant reminder of their end goal. All the while, an excited energy vibrates through the air at one of the newest developments of this year’s expansion into electric power.
In years past, the Eco Illini Supermileage team has used mostly gasoline-powered drivetrains, but in 2019, the team is attempting to compete in the the Shell Eco-Marathon on April 3-6 and the SAE Supermileage on June 6-7 using an electric drivetrain — one part of the car’s motor and overall powering system.
Since 2010, the team has competed in the Shell Eco-Marathon. Until this year, Illinois always competed in the combustion fuel division, the most competitive. However, with sustainability as a new field with a lot of room for development, team members are challenging themselves to create a fuel-efficient hybrid.
Part of using the new electric drivetrain is to try to prepare the members for real-world techniques on how to handle sustainability. As industries are moving toward a focus on sustainability, the way innovators must think about these elements are changing. The student group received funding from Illinois’ Student Sustainability Committee to assist in the manufacturing and development of a more eco-friendly car.
“As engineers, we are tasked with solving some of humanity’s greatest problems and challenges. Responsibly interacting with our environment is one of those challenges and I aim to not shy away from in my career,” said Stefan Kamzol, a sophomore in Mechanical Engineering.
Generally, the process of design to track takes about seven months. The fall semester is dedicated to the outside of the car, while the spring semester is mostly reserved for the inside components. In the future, team members want to give themselves an entire year.
“The idea would be to do your building in the fall semester and your testing in the spring before competition,” said Team President Joe Grigus, a junior in Aerospace Engineering.
Grigus, who joined the team his freshman year, went on to explain another important aspect of the process: travel. The competition now takes place in California. In the past, when competitions were in Detroit, it was easy enough to load the car into a U-Haul, and everyone else into a minibus, and road-trip up for a couple days. Now comes the process of figuring out whether to ship the car or drive it there — and which teammates to send to California.
The Shell-Eco Marathon competition includes all the Americas. Teams like those from Brazil design entire cars around the idea of travel. One year, that team made the car entirely compartmentalized, so team members could carry each component in their luggage on the plane. In 1939, the first Eco Marathon winner achieved 49.73 mpg.
In the 2018 event, more than 5,000 students competed from over 700 universities across 52 countries. Out of the intense competition, the Eco Illini team achieved 12th place, with a final reading of 674 mpg. This is fuel efficiency at its finest.
Grigus jokingly claims that there are only three things to keep in mind when you’re making a car:
“It works, it’s safe, and it’s efficient. You focus on those three things and try and find the perfect marriage between those.”
Safety, efficiency, and workability are the main drive behind Shell’s motivation to shift the rules of its competition. During its infancy, there were far more accidents, specifically with the use of rear-wheel design. Rear-wheel design eliminates a lot of surface area to make a smaller, lighter car, but the possibility of flipping the car dramatically increases.
And although you only go about 15-20 mph, you feel every mile above that when you’re in the car. The current model can reach about 30 mph.
“I would never want to hit that in that car since you’re so low to the ground, it’s shaky. And when you start to go faster, you think the car might fall apart around you,” Grigus said. Through technical development, a sense of community is formed.
“The teams at these events are awesome. They are incredibly helpful with sharing their own knowledge and experiences and make the trip into a learning opportunity,” said Thomas Phelps, a junior in Mechanical Engineering.
And although not everyone is out to design the most efficient car, the ideas that come out of the competition spur new ideas around design. For past competitions, teams made cars entirely out of junkyard materials.
“The goal was to make something cool and do something no one else had done. And it was more efficient than normal cars, but maybe not as efficient than the other teams, but it was cheap and inexpensive to make and they’re making it out of trash that would otherwise just sit there,” Grigus said.
The innovation never stops. Phelps, like other members, hopes to one day work with composites, just like the Eco Illini Supermileage car that’s headed to Sonoma, Calif., in April and Marshall, Mich., in June.
“I think that composites have a huge future in the world, so I absolutely see myself working with them in the future,” he said. “Additionally, I think that the environment is of the utmost importance, and I really hope to be able to have a positive impact upon it.”
— Taylor Jennings, iSEE Communications Intern