Problems do not prevent personal win for hydrogen car team

Friday, April 6, 2012 | 1:32 p.m. CDT
Dakota Burke, left, Laura Pisarkiewicz, and Nathan Park take a break from working on Tigergen III, a hydrogen car, in the Engineering Building West on March 16. The team competed in the UrbanConcept/Hydrogen division, where cars are required to be less prototypical and have 4 wheels, headlights, etc. For the first time the team had competitors in its division, including the University of Houston and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

COLUMBIA — The trials and tribulations of car racing came to a head for MU's hydrogen car team over Spring Break, but that didn't dampen the team's spirits.

During the Shell Eco-marathon Challenge in Houston last week, a crucial part broke — always a possibility when building a car from scratch. But by giving up sleep and putting their heads together, team members were able to fix the part in time to compete.


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Although they didn't finish the race, the situation turned into a personal victory. 

"Everybody went 100 percent," said Sean Conway, a mechanical engineering student and head of sponsor relations for the team this year. "The goal is always just to get this car running, which we eventually got. We reached our goal."

This year's race was the third time MU's team has competed in the Shell Eco-marathon Challenge. The team spent two years designing and building the car, Tigergen III.

Thirty engineering and business students from MU worked on Tigergen III, and half of them went to Houston for the competition, which consisted of six six-mile races over two days.

The crisis came Saturday, the first day of competition. Engineers from the team woke up and discovered something wrong with the motor controller. The controller reads the components of the car and sends signals to the motor. 

The electrical team discovered one of the capacitors was overloaded, damaging the controller. Although the parts had been checked, electrical components aren't put in the cars until two days before competition.

"'Wow, what are we gonna do?' was my first reaction," Conway said.

As the part fried, a shot of shrapnel busted loose. Conway said that if one of the engineers wasn't wearing his safety glasses, he could have damaged his vision.

After the incident, panic set in. The team had only one motor controller, so they made at least 25 calls to warehouses to find one.

By 1 p.m. Saturday,the group realized they weren't going to find a spare part nearby. The closest place with a part was in Indianapolis.

“It just came down to, we had to fix it or we weren’t gonna race at all,” said Victoria Hezel, the team president.

The problem wasn't foreseeable, but that, Hezel said, is what engineering is all about.

"If you create something and it doesn’t work right, you have to figure out what the problem is, go back and make it work right," Hezel said.

In a frenzy to make sure the car could race Sunday, team members had a stroke of luck — they discovered that the part had not been completely blown.

Pulling together as a team, they ended up remaking what they could of the broken part.

By Saturday evening, they drove the car on a practice track for 40 minutes. On Sunday, they knew they would only have to spend about 25 minutes on the track. Exhausted, everyone decided at about 5 a.m. to get some sleep.

The next day, they were back up at 8 a.m. to work on the car. Their years of work came down to the next few hours. 

“The group of us wanted to get the car on the track more than anything. We were willing to do anything to get it running,” Hezel said.

The challenge included three races on Sunday. The first and second tries failed, but the third was more successful: Lara Pisarkiewicz made it six laps around the track. It takes ten laps to finish, but the team still counted it as a win.

Hezel said it's encouraging to know the team has another year to improve Tigergen III. It was her last year on the team, as she's graduating this May, but she said she'll be keeping tabs on the race in the future.

"I’m very grateful to the team. Even the people who didn’t go to the race. The whole team, I couldn’t be more proud,” Hezel said.. 

As for Conway, who will be a junior next year, he is anxious to get the car as "close to perfect as possible."

"I’m just happy with the people we have (on the team), and I’m excited with who will join us next year to get this car where it needs to be," he said.

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