High School Carmakers Build Electric ‘Green’ Machines

By Rhea R. Borja — May 07, 2003 6 min read
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At first glance, the car didn’t look like much.

Painted a dull blue with orange stripes, the low two-seat convertible sat in West Philadelphia High School’s garage, its plywood instrument panel with hand- drawn signals catching the glare of an overhead light.

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Then on a recent sunny April afternoon, several students in protective goggles turned on high-powered electric sanders and descended on the car’s fiberglass shell. The tools’ deafening buzz and specks of bluish-white paint dust filled the air as they stripped away the paint. After a few days and a lot of elbow grease, the car sported a gleaming silver coat.

But it wasn’t the car’s looks that made carmakers and regional energy officials sit up and take notice —it’s what lay under the hood.

The “Soljourner II,” originally a 1995 Jeep Wrangler, had been stripped down and rebuilt as a clean, environmentally friendly machine. Instead of a full-size, gas-guzzling engine, the car was powered by a generator using a tiny, 20-horsepower diesel engine, a 36- horsepower electric motor, and a 408-volt battery pack.

This hybrid biodiesel-electric vehicle was built by the small group of enthusiastic students and their teachers at this city high school better known for its tough, urban environment than for its academic success.

“This is a really good learning experience,” said Simon Hauger, the electric-car team’s lead teacher, who also teaches math and science in the 1,600-student school’s automotive academy. “This is a hands-on education project so kids can apply what they’re learning in science, math, physics, [and] environmental and automotive [science].”

The ‘Green Machine’ Race

West Philadelphia High School’s electric car team is part of a nationwide trend in which high school students are building and racing electric cars—an experience that educators say reinforces what the students learn in math and science classes.

Competitions for such school-built vehicles abound across the country, and include the Corvallis, Ore.-based Electrathon America, the Kansas ElectroRally, and the Hawaiian Electric Co.'s Electrathon Marathon.

The team at West Philadelphia High, composed of African-American boys from the city’s urban southwest, has earned a reputation as a top competitor. The team cleaned up at the 2002 Tour de Sol, a “green machine” road rally from Baltimore to New York City in May of last year. The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, a regional group based in Greenfield, Mass., that promotes renewable-energy technologies, organized the event.

The West Philadelphia team competed against more than two dozen high schools and universities nationwide—as well as teams created by carmakers such as Toyota and DaimlerChrysler—for awards recognizing the most environmentally friendly, reliable, and efficient vehicles.

All of the cars drastically reduced gasoline consumption or used electricity, biodiesel, solar power, or hydrogen, which emit low greenhouse-gas emissions, a main cause of air pollution and the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer.

West Philadelphia’s contingent won seven awards for the two electric and hybrid cars the team entered, including first place in the prototype (one-of-a-kind) electric-vehicle category, second place in the prototype hybrid category, and awards for “greenest” and “most efficient” light-duty vehicles.

The awards highlight the innovation and smarts of not just the West Philadelphia students, but of all the students who entered the race, said Nancy Hazard, the director of the Tour de Sol.

Now in its 15th year, the race had no commercial competitors until five years ago, after carmakers were impressed with the students’ electric cars and saw the vehicles’ real-world potential.

“Schools and universities played a real leadership role in bringing electric cars to the marketplace,” Ms. Hazard said. “They’ve demonstrated they can work to the general public.”

For instance, she cited commercially available hybrid gasoline-electric cars such as the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius.

‘Eager to Learn’

The Tour de Sol cars are judged not just on speed, but—more importantly—fuel efficiency, greenhouse-gas emissions, reliability, handling ability, and driving range. The vehicles must navigate a slalom course, an autocross course with hairpin turns, as well as undergo other intensive technical-performance tests.

Last year, for instance, the Soljourner II had a top speed of 80 miles per hour and a driving range of 250 miles. This year, the West Philadelphia High team hopes to approach a driving range of 300 miles, again, using biodiesel, a renewable liquid fuel made from vegetable oils.

“It smells like McDonald’s french fries,” said Paul Silberschatz, a junior mechanical-engineering student at the private University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He’s one of several college students mentoring the high schoolers.

The high school’s hybrid car also performed well on the greenhouse-gas test, emitting about 23 pounds of carbon dioxide every 100 miles, Ms. Hazard said. In comparison, a typical gas-fueled sedan getting 27 miles per gallon emits 86 pounds of carbon dioxide every 100 miles. A gas- fueled sport utility vehicle getting 13 mpg emits 172 gallons of carbon dioxide at the same distance.

Last week, the West Philadelphia students were adding the final touches to their hybrid car for this year’s Tour de Sol, which runs May 10-14 from New Jersey to Washington. They’re going to enter a new, improved version of Soljourner II.

They’re replacing the car’s Plexiglas windshield with shatterproof glass, building a new nose section and roof, optimizing the car’s electronic system, and lightening the weight of the battery pack to make the car more aerodynamic.

Mr. Silberschatz emphasized the high level of learning this after-school program entails. “This is a college-level program, of very high caliber,” he said. “The students here are dedicated and eager to learn.”

Eleventh grader David Pope said he joined the team to learn something new. “I wasn’t being challenged much in school,” he said, “and this gave me a chance to get challenged.”

Senior Calvin Adams said working on the team gave him direction in school. He plans to become an automotive technician after a stint in the Marine Corps.

‘Real-World Applications’

The electric-car programs, students and teachers say, are as beneficial to a college-bound engineering student as they are to a teenager who plans to become a car mechanic right out of high school.

Amber Cross, a senior at the 450-student Cato-Meridian High School in Cato, N.Y., will drive her team’s three-wheeled, solar-powered “Sunpacer” car in the Tour de Sol.

Ms. Cross plans to study chemical engineering this fall at Clarkson University. The university, in Potsdam, N.Y., has a nationally renowned engineering program.

“This has helped me in physics, basic mechanics,” Ms. Cross said. “There’s a lot of real-world applications with this car. It’s taught me a lot about alternative energy sources that we’d talked about in chemistry.”

This year’s car-team members aren’t the only students who have seen the crossover in learning, said Mr. Hauger, the lead teacher for the West Philadelphia High team. Over the past five years, some of his students have gone on to Temple University, Drexel University, and Pennsylvania State University, among other institutions. One even received a five-year engineering scholarship to Drexel, Mr. Hauger added.

Several have become automotive technicians after graduating from programs developed by the carmakers Volvo and BMW. And that career route has its benefits.

“A few of the kids,” the teacher said over the ear-splitting sounds caused by the students sanding the car, “make more money straight out of school than I do.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


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