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Alice headed to Wonderland: engineers set to compete in Michigan EcoCar competition

Students have been working into the early morning hours in the ETLC basement preparing “Alice,” their zero-emissions car, for the Shell Eco-Marathon.

Next month, Alice will compete in Detroit with more than 100 cars from North and South America, where fuel efficiency rather than speed which will determine the winner of the six-mile circuit. Of the EcoCar’s 40-person team, 20 members will travel to guide the Eco Car to the finish line.

For now, the team is putting in many hours of preparation, lead engineer Mike Bardwell said.

“I can tell you what we’re not doing: sleeping,” he said.

Alice runs on hydrogen fuel cells which provide their own challenges, as hydrogen is highly flammable. The team is currently testing the fuel cell in a controlled environment for maximum efficiency and safety.

“We want to be able to make sure that we have alarms that go off in case we have hydrogen leaks cause if you have over a certain (parts per million) you’re going to go boom and that’s not good,” Bardwell said.

Alice also has the typical features of a car, including a horn, windshield wipers and speedometer.

The EcoCar team had humble beginnings with their inaugural car “Steve,” made out of paper mache and baseboards. The team placed second in 2012, despite being their first year in the competition. In 2014, the team placed first.

Over the course of its competitions, the EcoCar team has learned even more about maximizing fuel efficiency. Lighter cars are more efficient, and Alice weighs in at only 130 kg compared to Steve’s 150 kg. The team has also taken on a more hands-on approach to component design, explained EcoCar Outreach and Events Coordinator Natasha Pye.

“We’ve designed a lot more of the components ourselves and by doing that it not only offers us an incredible learning opportunity,” Pye said. “We’re also able to have a lot more control over the functions.”

This approach can have its drawbacks though the team has experienced issues with design and manufacturing that have resulted in last minute changes and missed deadlines. But despite that, seeing the car move makes all the hard work worth it, Pye said.

The EcoCar is also a look towards technology that could contribute to a carbon neutral 2050, Rumman Waqar, a fourth year engineering student, said. Companies such as Toyota and Mercedes trying to implement hydrogen fuel cell technology but they face challenges with safety and economic viability.

The U of A EcoCar team is an interdisciplinary group of students in engineering, industrial design, business, and fine arts. They’re becoming a stronger squad as the marathon draws closer.

“I think definitely all the late nights we’ve spent building this and all of our work sessions really bring us all together.” Pye said. “We’re all working on the same projects we all have to coordinate together. It really is a team effort.”

Sofia Osborne

Sofia is a fourth-year English major with a double minor in biology and philosophy. She's been writing for The Gateway since the first day of her first year because she wants to be Rory Gilmore when she grows up. Now, she's the Managing Editor and is in charge of the print magazine.

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