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the future of energy

Laval winners with their Alerion in the pitsLorraine Sommerfeld/The Globe and Mail

Imagine you work all year creating something that is to compete in just one event. Imagine you are designing, creating, forging and testing with limited manpower and even more limited funds, all while carrying a full school course load – usually university engineering.

Now imagine you get to the event only to find out customs has your car– and isn't letting go.

The Shell Eco-marathon sprung from a 1939 bet between two Shell scientists: who could go the farthest on a set amount of fuel? Today, that experiment maintains that same premise, but has expanded to include the growing landscape of fuel technologies. It has become a worldwide series of events that test the ingenuity, imagination and skill of high school and university teams around the world. Annual events are held in Asia (Kuala Lumpur), Europe (The Netherlands) and the Americas (Houston).

Canada has a stellar reputation in this arena. Laval University in Quebec has won its prototype category four of the past five years, and this year regained the top spot with a new Americas record: its car travelled 3,587 miles on a single gallon of gas. That's 5,773 kilometres on 3.8 litres to us Canucks.

At the recent Houston event, a record seven teams participated from Canada. In addition to Laval, the University of Toronto made its debut, two teams from the University of British Columbia (UBC Supermileage team came fifth; its urban concept car came second) made the trek, as well as Moncton (it placed 27th), the University of Alberta, and Dalhousie from Halifax (the Sexton Supermilers came ninth).

Dalhousie University's Sexton Supermilers' prototype used gasoline the Globe and Mail Lorraine Sommerfeld the Globe and Mail

By the time I got to Houston, the teams had been on site at the George R. Brown Convention Centre for three days. The kids bring tents and camp in their pits, because they are essentially working around the clock on their vehicles. Passing inspection is a tough go; one team had a car 10 centimetres too long, and took up a hacksaw rather than forego their chance to compete.

While this is every inch a competition, there is also a spirit of co-operation that permeates the event. About 140 teams –the event grows every year – are meticulously laid out in the indoor pit area. Row after row of partitioned spaces, banners proudly declaring the school they represent. The competition allows teams to build two types of cars: prototype, and urban concept. Both can use an array of fuel sources, making this event truly a demonstration of the future of energy.

Some teams have two cars on the go, the team moving back and forth like frothing worker bees in their pits. Others are doing last-minute repair or invention as a tech inspection falls short. And some, like the lads from the University of Alberta, sit dejectedly in their paddock.

They placed second here last year in their category, a huge bragging right. This year, their hydrogen concept car was going to be one of the ones to watch. Instead, as the team winged its way to Houston, the car sat in customs, red tape seemingly having another plan for it. It never did make it down. For many on this 20-member team, this is it. The culmination of a year's work before they graduate ends in the bottom of a beer in a Houston bar, rather than on the track.

The stress for good results isn't just for the present team members, however. Repeatedly, I'm told that recruiting is crucial to keeping the program going, and that means students willing to commit many hours and much sweat into not only creating these one-of-a-kind vehicles, but also the exhaustive fundraising that must take place. Asking the price of an individual car exposes a range of $13,000-$30,000. But that's the carbon fibre, gears, suspension and nuts and bolts car. That's not the design, the labour, the mechanics, the physics, the trial and error, the testing and retesting and the heart that goes into each one of these vehicles. Schools involved note they couldn't be here without excellent support from their universities, including faculties and alumni associations. But the heavily decaled cars also reveal how many local industries lend support, with parts or machining.

Shell Canada does promotions with the competing schools, setting up challenges that can see them win free shipping for their car or earning additional gear. Oriented around involving the communities and raising sponsorship awareness, they range from competitions for social media participation to rallies to send off parties.

It's hard not to notice the disparity between many of the teams. One American high school has so many teams, they're coded by colour and each has its own pit area. Some cars are sleek carbon fibre and machined parts, others sport more than a little duct tape.

Team Guatemala and their more modest car, with the engine borrowed from Shurr High School in California for The Globe and Mail Lorraine Sommerfeld for The Globe and Mail

I approached one paddock with three young people sitting near a modest vehicle. Universidad del Valle de Guatemala is represented for the first time at the event by three of its 10 team members. For Margarita Flores, Ana Silvia Lopez and Andres Hernandez, their trip to Houston turned into disaster when customs wouldn't release their engine. End of the line? Nope.

Word travels fast in these events. Enter Schurr High School, from Montebello, Calif. Perennial participants at the Eco Marathon, team coach Armando Hernandez sprang into action. Soon the Guatemala team had not just Schurr's back-up engine, but additional parts as well as students: they handed over equipment and manpower to the stunned, but thrilled, trio.

I asked Hernandez why he did it. "Our school is part of east L.A. It's 95 per cent Hispanic, and this is our way to get more kids on the college track. And it works. This event isn't about just one team, and it's not just about building cars. They kids get so much more out of it."

He goes on to list years when Schurr has frequently lent gear to opposing teams, only to see those teams beat them in the finals. It's all part of the race, he explains with a shrug. One time, a team from India got to tech spec, and didn't have the required seatbelts. Schurr's team helped them install some, Hernandez explaining, "I can't imagine my kids going all that way only to be held back by something so easily fixed."

Got a student heading to university this fall? The Eco Marathon teams are generally comprised of students in computer, electrical and mechanical engineering, and engineering science. The University of Toronto competed for the first time here in Houston, and teams are always recruiting new students, especially first and second year. Oh, and girls are almost always in the driver's seat.

It's about the future of energy, as Shell notes. But it's about a lot more than that.

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Correction: Schurr High School was spelled incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.