• The Alice, race number 611, an UrbanConcept vehicle running on hydrogen for team University of Alberta EcoCar Team from the University of Alberta during day two of the Shell Eco-marathon Americas in Detroit, Friday, April 22, 2016. (Photo: Rick Osentoski/AP Images for Shell)

Next week, university and high school students will take over the streets of downtown Detroit, Michigan for the 2017 Shell Eco-marathon Americas (SEMA). Teams will compete to see whose custom-built vehicles are the most fuel-efficient.

Although combustion engines are the popular propulsion system of choice, SEMA encourages students to experiment with alternative power sources by including categories for battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cells. The number of teams competing in these categories is smaller, but interest in clean energy is growing.

“Realistically, anyone with a passion for automotive would need to get onboard with the new technologies that are emerging on the market. There is a really big shift in the industry towards sustainable and alternative energy,” says Mengqi Wang, project manager for the University of Toronto Supermileage Team. They are top competitors in the prototype gasoline category, but have also chosen to participate in the battery-electric category.

The challenge was one of the main reasons the team decided to branch out, Wang says. While still refining their gasoline prototype, they wanted the learning experience of working on a completely novel design. Both the battery-electric and the hydrogen fuel cell energy sources present a unique set of challenges for creating a functional and competitive vehicle.

That's appealing to new teams looking to make an impact at this year's competition. 

“The challenges that we face, technically speaking, involve a lot of time and effort for our team members to think critically and find innovative ways to approach things like interfacing issues,” says Mihskakwan James Harper, team captain for the University of Manitoba ecoMotion team, competing for the first time this year. 

Harper started the team in 2016 after completing a work term with Shell in Fort McMurray, Alberta. SEMA’s focus on mobility as well as environmental conservation piqued his interest. Beyond just getting their name out, the ecoMotion team is also looking forward to connecting with other teams to see what alternative energy solutions are out there.

SEMA also gives young innovators a chance to get hands-on experience with new fuel technologies and apply what they've learned in class to real-life situations.

"There aren’t a lot of opportunities where you get to work on an up-and-coming technology that is also renewable,” says Jack Shannon, executive director of the Queen’s University Fuel Cell Team.

Last year was Queen’s first time competing in the prototype hydrogen category, which they went on to win. To defend their title, they are piling on late night work sessions to try and improve their vehicle. As they put theory into practise, competing in SEMA has become an extension of their classroom education.

“Our chemical team is working on building a controller for our fuel cell and they’re directly applying things that they’ve learned from our process control class in chemical engineering,” says Shannon. “Having the opportunity to do that is really once in a lifetime.”

Of all the fuel sources, hydrogen poses some of the greatest technical challenges; as such it’s one of the harder categories, attracting fewer competitors than other categories, but that's part of the draw for the University of Alberta's EcoCar Team. 

“The fuel cell and the systems required to make it work and be as efficient as possible are quite complex,” says Natasha Pye, assistant project manager for the EcoCar Team. “Hydrogen is the smallest molecule so it’s easy to leak it and hard to contain it. Our team really enjoys the challenge of working with a fuel source like that.”

This year, the Alberta team is entering two cars into the competition, one an urban concept car and the other a prototype, both powered by hydrogen. Currently, they order the hydrogen fuel cell from a Canadian company called Ballard and build the surrounding enclosure. In the future, they hope to build their own fuel cell from scratch. 

“We believe in alternative energy and to work on something that we truly believe in is really inspiring and helps motivate us to put in all this time and effort,” says Pye. “I think alternative energy is the future. As we’re seeing the effects of climate change more and more, it’s made a lot of people realize that we need to change what we’re doing.”

There's plenty of debate in the automotive industry about whether hydrogen or battery power is the better choice for the cars of the future. Both are beginning to gain traction in the market as more and more companies are looking with interest at renewable energy sources. SEMA is a testing ground where students can explore the different options, do research and ultimately play a role in shaping the future of transportation. 

“One thing that amazed me looking at all the cars at last year's competition [was] there were no cars that looked identical,” says Pye. “I think that speaks to the challenge we face, that there is no one solution.”