COLUMBIA — MU’s Hydrogen Car Team is counting on a hydrogen fuel cell to power its car to the finish line in Shell’s Eco-marathon this weekend in Houston.
MU entered the race in the fuel-efficiency category — the car that uses the least energy to complete a six-mile course wins.
The fuel powering MU's race car has a use rate of 480 miles per gallon.
Under adviser Richard Whelove, MU teams have experimented with alternative fuels since first entering the race in 1993 with a solar-powered car. This year's team designed Tigergen II, a second-generation hydrogen car that incorporates hydrogen fuel-cell technology.
The team's reliance on hydrogen comes at a time when gas prices are inching closer to record highs.
According to the government’s Energy Information Administration, the nationwide average price this week for a gallon of regular gasoline reached $3.79.GasBuddy.com put the Missouri average on Thursday at about $3.73.
That’s the closest the U.S. has been to the 2008 peak cost of $4.11.
But as an alternative to fossil fuels, hydrogen remains a question mark. A hydrogen-powered car combines hydrogen gas and oxygen to make electricity. The only byproduct is water, making hydrogen a zero-emission fuel source — and an attractive substitute for the world’s decreasing stock of fossil fuels.
The design for hydrogen-powered cars on a commercial scale is still in the experimental stage. The gas that powers a hydrogen fuel cell must be separated from compounds such as water in order to store it and release it later as energy.
Right now, it is not cost-effective to produce hydrogen gas for commercial use in vehicles.
The president of the MU Hydrogen Car Team, Jonathan Lavallee, said the team switched from solar panels to hydrogen in order to work on projects that have real-world applications.
“We weren’t creating anything that would impact the future,” he said.
Victoria Hezel, team spokeswoman, said this type of alternative fuel research needs to continue. “We’re going to need something soon, especially with gas prices the way it is,” she said.
Whelove, a resident instructor in MU’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department, said it is important for his students to take what they're learning to future jobs.
“If they go to work in the automotive industry, they will already have experience working with alternative energy,” he said.
Last year technical difficulties left the team with a less than stellar finish. This year, Tigergen II has been optimized in order to meet the competition’s “urban” requirements. Each entry must have four wheels, a horn, brake lights, headlights and a trunk to simulate a typical driving experience.
The car’s frame has been molded from carbon fiber similar to that used on the new 787 Dreamliner series from Boeing, Lavallee said. Boeing donated material for the team’s next version of the hydrogen car, Tigergen III, already being virtually designed.
MU’s team drove to Houston on Wednesday. Teams practice on Friday, and the race trials begin Saturday and Sunday.