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West Philadelphia high school dares to build a 100 m.p.g. car

Students from West Philadelphia make a viable 'X PRIZE' run against auto companies from around the globe. The potential prize: $7.5 million for the school and a 100 m.p.g. car for the world.

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The Alternative class requires at least two wheels and a minimum range of 100 miles. For this competition, West Philly bought a build-it-yourself racing-car kit meant to be powered by a Porsche or Corvette engine. Instead, they dropped in an electric motor running on lithium-ion batteries and a Volkswagen engine powered by biodiesel.

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The cars aren't wimps, built only to maximize miles per gallon. They would more than hold their own on an American highway. The modified Focus generates 140 horsepower and tops out at more than 110 m.p.h. The race car, called the EVX GT, creates 240 horsepower and tremendous torque, with a top speed above 150 m.p.h. and a superquick 0-to-60 time of less than five seconds.

"In my opinion, it's not difficult to get 100 miles per gallon," says Sekou Kamara, a senior and a team member at West Philly, who plans on opening his own auto mechanic shop someday. The lithium-ion batteries, he explains, are "sort of like what you use in your cellphone. They're extremely light, and you can get a lot [of power] out of them."

Sekou and two of his teammates, juniors Azeem Hill and Daniel Moore, spoke to a group of entrepreneurs at a recent conference on business innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.

"What's great is that we have 15 to 20 students on our team who are not just learning about cars, but they're learning about how to be marketable in a green economy," says Kathleen Radebaugh, an English teacher at the high school who serves as a volunteer for the X PRIZE team and accompanied the students to MIT.

She recalls seeing Daniel show up in her class one day "just covered with dust. I said, 'What are you doing downstairs?' He was sanding the frame [of a car]."

The team has raised about $400,000 to design, build, and test the two cars, Mr. Hauger says. That includes writing and winning grants, collecting donations, and occasionally making trips to the blood bank for extra funds. Boeing Corporation donated time in its wind tunnel, which helped students refine aerodynamics. Two electrical engineering students from Drexel University also lend a hand.