Backstory: Breaking the gas ceiling

Ask Jerrod Bouchard what he did on his summer vacation and he'll let you peek at the car he helped create, a teardrop-shaped three-wheeler that gets 600 miles to the gallon – if you pedal. But if you're feeling lazy, this human/solar-powered hybrid, which plugs in at home and pops out solar panels while parked, will zip off at 50 m.p.h. for 50 miles. No pedaling required.

Of course, miles per gallon in this case is only an energy equivalent. The "fish," as Jerrod's team of nine fellow students dubbed the bullet-proof vehicle, doesn't burn gasoline – just a little electricity and some calories. No need for a traditional fill-up. Ever.

And that's just the point at the first student-led "vehicle design summit" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): to build commuter cars more efficient than anything the world has ever seen. It's a sort of garage mechanic meets computer geek event – a rogue student summer camp for the best young vehicle-engineering minds in the world. Their goal: create four cars that carry people and luggage – and get 300-plus miles per gallon. And do it all in eight weeks.

It's the kind of outlandish goal that makes professional auto engineers smirk like schoolchildren. But here on the banks of the Charles River, in storied MIT aeronautical labs that gave birth to jet turbines and spacecraft, the next generation of automobiles is gestating in the minds of 53 high-octane intellects – engineering students from 21 universities in 15 nations.

"People say we're going to have green vehicles in 20 years. Well, we can have them now," says Robyn Allen, the MIT student who conceived of the vehicle design summit. "What we're trying to do is show the direction the big automakers should be moving."

Robyn popped out of her dorm room this spring with a vision so audacious that perhaps only a college student would try it: revolutionize the global auto industry – over summer break. Within hours, she confided her idea to fellow student Anna Jaffe. By the next morning, the pair had sketched out a plan and put out an e-mail to the smartest pocket-protector set they knew – students around the world who build solar cars for an annual race across Australia.

Many of them, the women knew, were frustrated by the "Solar Challenge." It was yielding a standard tortilla-flat car that would never be practical in the real world. Now Robyn and Anna wanted to unleash the pent-up creativity of the college virtuosos to challenge Detroit.

The student teams decided to shoot for five cars that got 500 miles per gallon. But reality soon set in. Four cars at 300 miles per gallon – one fuel-cell powered, a human-powered/electric hybrid, an all-electric, and a biodiesel burner – seemed more pragmatic.

***

Control central for this student "Manhattan Project" is office 33-218c at MIT, a room the size of two large broom closets. It is adorned with cartons of respirators, white disposable bunny suits, a shelf of donated computer modeling books nobody has time to read, and cases of donated SpaghettiOs – the sustenance, apparently, of any serious engineering student.

Receipts and Post-it notes mosaic the walls. In the center of it all, Robyn sits serenely behind her laptop, queen of the organized chaos that is building as an impending deadline approaches.

It is 10:35 a.m. on a Thursday in July, another in a stream of 16-hour days for Robyn and the four teams. Today she is simultaneously making phone calls to track down parts, taking questions from team leaders, firing off e-mails, and munching Tostitos.

Next to her, Anna does her own equipment-forensics work. She surfs the Internet to track down a company to donate a hydrogen tank for the fuel-cell vehicle. Right now the car is only a welded aluminum frame, with no skin and no motor, sitting in the alley behind the lab. The human-powered vehicle is in pieces on a table. The biodiesel team awaits a rear axle.

Operating on a shoestring budget of about $500,000 donated by a dozen sponsors, Robyn and Anna are critical links, scroungers rounding up donated parts and buying the rest.

"I have two emergencies," Robyn says unflappably to Anna. "I need to find a welder and some important magnets that were supposed to arrive yesterday. Oh, and Ford [Motor Company] wants us to go talk to their 'alt-fuels' people and so does General Motors – at the same time."

Earlier, the emergency was finding a fuel cell. Of six companies contacted, none wanted to donate a million-dollar piece of technology on short notice. Finally, Anna found a high school science teacher in Rhode Island who agreed to loan one. On a morning inspection tour, Robyn tells Saphir Faid, a student from Belgium who manages the fuel-cell team, that a hydrogen tank will arrive soon. But that's the least of his problems. "We will have to work night and day to finish," says Saphir of a deadline two weeks off.

Nearby, the biofuels team celebrates the emergence of its carbon-fiber shell from a mold. It looks like a manatee on blocks. One team member, Eric Ellenoff, asks Robyn how to remove epoxy resin from his hair.

For all their long nights and endless buffets of pizza and Mountain Dew, the students find the challenge stimulating. The mood is a mixture of idealism and youthful hubris. "The most amazing thing is that we are making something nobody else has done," says Oscar Terrer, a diesel-engine expert from Spain.

Matthew Franking, a student at Principia College in Elsah, Ill., works on the electrical system of the "fish" with Craig George, an engineer from the University of Missouri at Rolla. Hunched over laptops, they confer about software to control the wiring. "I love this stuff," says Matthew.

"If I wasn't doing this, my summer job was selling toilet paper dispensers," adds Craig.

Back in the office, Matthew Ritter from the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., is eating SpaghettiOs straight from the can. He calls the project the experience of a lifetime. "The tight deadline has been difficult for everyone," he says. "But I can't think of a better way to spend the summer. There are a lot of problems in life, and we're getting a little traction on one of them."

***

Just days before the Aug. 13 deadline, anxiety runs high. Chris Pentacoff, of MIT, slumps near the all-electric car, answering questions about the bullet-shaped model at a public unveiling.

On one level, the student engineers have triumphed. Eight weeks after the students began their quixotic quest, all four vehicles run, though some are more road-worthy at this point than others. To prove it, three of the teams tested their cars on the rabbit-warren roads around MIT the night before – at 4 a.m. The fuel-cell team got so excited at one point that all 10 members piled on the car, rendering it immobile until two jumped off.

The big question – will the vehicles get 300 miles per gallon – will probably have to wait until road tests next spring. But, for now, the students are preparing to head home, secure that they have contributed at least something to helping the world survive the Oil Age.

Detroit, are you watching?

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