A handful of Louisiana Tech University students are mechanically and passionately pushing themselves to the limit — and trying to do the same to their homemade cars.

April 15-18 at Fontana Speedway in Los Angeles, Tech’s will be one of dozens of university teams competing to see whose car can drive the farthest on the least amount of gas in the Shell Eco Car Challenge.

About 20 students have participated in the designing and building of the cars, including freshman Samantha “Sam” Pullen, who graduated from Caddo Magnet High in Shreveport last spring.

“I’d thought I’d be doing mostly textbook work my first two years, but from the get-go it’s been hands-on learning,” said Pullen, a mechanical engineering major. “Any chance we have, we come work on the cars; I’ve been up there at 10 at night.”

“Up there” is down there in the basement of Bogard Hall, where two workrooms are cramped with car parts, frames, molds and minds combining to make from scratch a car that will offer more for less. Most of the students are engineering majors, but one is in nursing and another in biology.

Louisiana Tech Eco Car“Most would think this is all mechanical, but you’ve got lights, you’ve got body work… these students are learning about engineering outside their majors; maybe they’ll change to another kind of engineering through this,” said Dr. Heath Tims, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Tech and one of the faculty advisors for the project. “Last year, our first year, we had to handpick some students to get this started. With the success we had, the students started coming out of the woodwork to do this.”

Tech’s “Blue Diamond” car got 430 miles to the gallon last year, good for 12th place against 36 schools that included Penn State, Purdue, LSU, Colorado and Cal Poly, as well as teams from Canada and Mexico.

This year’s goal: 1,000 to 1,500 miles per gallon.

“We built that car last year in two-and-a-half months’ time with $1,600, so we did really well,” said Tims (pictured right with student Paul LeMaire). “Our goal was to make it to the competition with a functional vehicle. We took what we learned and we’re building on that.”

The building is done outside of classroom time and for no school credit. Last year’s travel crew to California – five students and two faculty – stayed in tents on the track’s infield since they couldn’t afford hotel rooms.

Yet since the fall, the wheels in Bogard have been spinning. It’s not so much the destination as it’s been the thrill of the ride.

“You jump in where you can,” Pullen said. “If you don’t know how to do something, you ask. Everybody does a little bit of everything and everybody learns a little bit of everything.”

“Doing well at the Challenge allows you to have bragging rights and get your name out there and get some publicity,” Tims said. “It not only gives the students experience, it gives them confidence. They’re doing all the work, from concept to design to building, and learning how to work better in teams, how to manage a project, and they’re having fun while doing it.”

Two cars will compete this year. One is the “prototype” like last year’s Blue Diamond, judged strictly on fuel efficiency, and the other is the “urban” car, a more realistic but still very small vehicle.

At its base, the prototype’s engine is the similar to one you’d find in a small tiller or chain saw, except it’s custom-made by the students. The Challenge requires it average 15 miles an hour for about a dozen miles. The miles-per-gallon ratio is then computed.

One of Tech’s more tiny students will drive.

“It helps,” Tims said, “when you have some female engineers who are small.”

The urban car’s engine is around five horsepower: imagine a motor for a small lawnmower. It’s also been modified. The student driver will be required to start and stop the “Tech red” car on the track and in urban-car traffic to simulate city driving.

“But our blue car,” Tims said of the prototype, “that’s the car we’ll really push to the limit to try and get the mileage.”

The push is on to get as many as a dozen students to California. Many companies have donated materials or services worth more than $35,000, Tims said, to build the cars and transport them to the track. But the number of students who’ll make the trip depends on the amount of monetary donations the effort will inspire.

“We have offset the cost of the cars but we can’t offset the cost of the kids,” Tims said. “A lot of them can truthfully afford to pay for themselves, but a lot of them can’t.”

“I know I personally don’t have the finances to make the trip, but if we can pay partially or it turns out that I’d be able to go, that’d be great; I’d love it,” said Pullen, who drives a 2000 Saturn she said is “very fuel efficient – but not so fuel efficient that I can afford to drive it to California!”

Those wishing to contribute can call Tims at (318) 257-3770; more information about the Challenge is at latech.edu/ecocar. Also, Shell contracted an independent television crew to film two potential shows, one for PBS and one in documentary format in HD. The crew visited Bogard Hall in February, was at last year’s Challenge and will be at the track again in April.

“For these kids, the aspect of trying to promote Tech is very important to them,” Tims said. “They’re very proud of where they go to school. They’re working hard here because they want the University to do well when we go to California.”

Written by Teddy Allen