COLUMBIA — Three years of research, design and construction. Three years of learning and rebuilding.
Three years of everything, including searching for fuel cells and laying up pieces of composite materials, then finding a new event at the last minute and rushing to finish putting everything together. Three years of work all comes down to this: a 10-day, 2,500-mile race this month from northeast Texas to western Canada.
The Mizzou Hydrogen Car Team, a student design team from MU’s College of Engineering, will leave Saturday for its first race with Tigergen I, a student-built car powered by two hydrogen fuel cells. The team will be participating in the North American Solar Challenge as a demonstration vehicle, which means it will not be competing for any ranking or awards.
Instead, the team hopes to persuade other schools to build hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars and convince organizations to hold competitions for the vehicles, said adviser Rick Whelove, director of undergraduate studies for MU’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department.
While this will be MU’s first race with a hydrogen-powered car, the team has competed seven other times with solar-powered cars in this race. The team intended to drive this year’s car in the North American leg of the Great Race, an event with segments all over the world. That race, though, has been postponed until next year, and the students would have to miss a few weeks of classes to compete. After hearing that, the team decided it needed to find another race, said Sarah Scully, who will be the team’s president for the upcoming year.
What brings students to such a long, unprecedented project?
Some like the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in classes.
“I can be creative with engineering concepts as opposed to just doing book work,” team member KC Shuman said.
Others like the accomplishment of finishing the car.
“Just seeing something from the beginning to the end, all the way through, is pretty exciting,” mechanical team leader Garrett Bentley said.
Whelove said he is excited that the students have been gaining so much practical experience.
“They will have gone so far beyond other college students,” he said.
The team’s members come from several engineering disciplines, and some even come from other majors within the university, including business and journalism. Everyone has the same opportunities to work on all aspects of the car.
Caitlin Garing is one of three journalism majors on the team.
“You get to learn a whole new skill set that I didn’t even know existed, like layups, epoxy, carbon fiber — heard of them in passing, but to be actually able to use them? That’s pretty cool,” Garing said.
Building the car has certainly come with its share of challenges. The team lost many of the more experienced members who had worked on past cars when they graduated, and a lot of useful information didn’t get passed on.
“Engineers tend not to have the best documentation,” Bentley said.
Critical components were also much harder to find when the project started; Bentley said the team spent a year looking for fuel cells to use on the car.
At this point, though, the car is more or less assembled. The team members received the car’s newly painted carbon-fiber-and-Nomex body Tuesday evening, and the team’s blog has a video of Bentley driving the car last week without it. This week, the students are working on putting the rest of the car together and getting it ready for next week’s technical inspections, which begin after they arrive in Texas.
The race begins July 13 and will run briefly through western Missouri, passing through Neosho on July 14 and 15 and entering Kansas just south of Kansas City.
Scully said the team hopes to repair the car next year while designing its next one, which would provide members with both hands-on mechanical experience and design experience at the same time and give new members more to do. The students also hope to enter Tigergen I in another event next year.
Whelove said the team members have an inherent advantage over their counterparts in other extracurricular activities on campus.
“We like to call them the brain sports rather than the brawn sports,” he said, “and everyone turns professional when they graduate.”