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Shell Eco-marathon: Building cars, the future, and other fun stuff

Updated on June 30, 2012
A prototype vehicle
A prototype vehicle
An Urban Concept car
An Urban Concept car

Our fingers wrapped around the metal fence in a choking embrace as time itself seemed to stop. We barely noticed the trees dancing above us, or even the crowds milling around us. All we saw was the race track and in a nervous, frenzied excitement we watched other prototype cars zoom past again and again. Some, deafening; others, completely silent, but none of them was the car we had designed and built with our own hands, none of them was the car that we had poured our blood, sweat, and tears into. And after 10 minutes, which dragged on for hours, we were convinced. Our car would come on the truck, broken down...again. But then, we glimpsed a sudden flash of green from behind the trees and our mouths dropped open in shock for a fleeting moment before we screamed. Hope glinted, reborn in our eyes and our faces split into huge smiles of delight. We danced around in elation as our car passed again and again, zooming to victory as we experienced a moment we would remember for the rest of our lives.

Our car took 1st place in our category for the Shell Eco-marathon and the whole experience from the start is something I'll cherish forever.

What is the Shell Eco-marathon?

The Shell Eco-marathon is a competition in which high school and college teams design, build, and drive real, running cars in hopes of traveling the furthest distance with the least amount of fuel. In short, it is a fuel efficiency competition. Teams can choose to build a prototype vehicle, which looks like something from the distant future. The prototype seats one person who is basically laying down on their back in order to acquire the sleekest, most aerodynamic shape. These cars are so aerodynamic that without even the engine running, one push can send the car coasting dozens of feet. The other option is an Urban Concept car. The Urban Concept car is a car that you can technically drive on the road. It can seat one to two people sitting upright and has an actual driving wheel, pedals, headlights, and other requirements. For the rules, check out the Shell Eco-marathon website.

There are Shell Eco-marathon competitions in the Americas, Asia, and Europe. Generally your team competes in the one closest to where you live but there are always a few lucky international teams that get to travel across the world.

Purdue University's solar car
Purdue University's solar car

What are the fuel categories?

Your Shell Eco-marathon car can run on gasoline, diesel, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), gas to liquid (100% GTL), fatty acid methyl ester (100% FAME), ethanol E100 (100% ethanol), hydrogen, or solar. Shell provides the fuel for your car during the competition.

What do you win?

For the combustion engine, there are three prizes of $5,000, $2,500, and $1,000. For fuel cells there are two prizes of $2,500, and $1,000. For solar, there is an award of $2,500. There is also a $1,000 prize for the winner of gasoline, diesel, alternative gasoline, and alternative diesel. There are separate prizes for prototype and urban concept cars. Also, there are special awards and cash prizes in the categories, Eco-design, safety, technical innovation, design, communications, best team spirit, and perseverance.

Last year, the Laval University team from Canada won the prototype grand prize with 2,487.5 mpg. The winner of the prototype solar category was from Purdue University with a whopping 4,548 mpg. And the grand prize winner of the urban concept cars was Mater Dei High School with 437.2 mpg.

The first all woman's team
The first all woman's team

How do you benefit?

By being on a Shell Eco-marathon team, you receive a wide array of technical skills such as working with engines, drive chains, carbon fiber or fiberglass, steering, and brake mechanics, along with learning how to weld and build a chassis. However, you also learn valuable life lessons in budgeting, leadership, and most of all, teamwork. Even if you know nothing about cars or have never been on a team, by the end, you will have become an expert in both. In the Shell Eco-marathon, you will get amazing opportunities to do things you may have once deemed impossible and you will receive an education no ordinary high school or college student expects to learn. Through experience, you learn how dedication and hard work pays off. You get the chance to travel and meet teams from all over the world who know exactly what you've been through and experienced. You gain confidence and pride because after all, you; yes, you have built a car. The Shell Eco-marathon is the most fun, rewarding experience a student can ever dream of and much, much, it looks amazing on college and scholarship applications.

How can you join? How can you get sponsors?

If your college or high school doesn't already have a Shell Eco-marathon team or one similar to it, you can start one! Find an adviser, apply for grants, and check out this article on how to build a team and acquire sponsors.

Visit for more information

A few random tips for your team

Especially if this is your first car, focus on simplicity! Your first objective is to actually have a running car that you can drive. This comes before any fancy changes to your engine. Also, when you keep it simple, it removes any unnecessary weight which would just decrease your fuel efficiency.For my team's first year we did not have any compound curves on our body and we did not modify the engine except convert it from a pull start to an electric start (which is very useful on the track) among other things. Also, when looking for an engine, search for small and lightweight. Most teams use engines that are not designed for cars, but for other things such as generators. Also, if you explain what exactly you are doing, you may be able to get the engine company to sponsor you or at least give a discount. Another tip is to assign jobs for each member of your team, instead of everyone either not knowing what to do or all focusing on the same thing. For more team-related tips, click here. If you didn't realize it already, being on this team (especially for your first car) IS going to take a lot of time and effort. This said, try to put in the extra hours in the beginning, not in the last week or two. And I know this from experience. Yet, another tip for you first-timers, when designing your car, look at pictures and websites from other Shell Eco-marathon teams from the Shell Eco-marathon website, along with similar competitions. Also, if you have no idea how to weld or how an engine works, seek help from your community. Chances are, a few parents, teachers, professors, and/or local businesses will know what to do and want to help.

What are you going to do?

See results
Click thumbnail to view full-size
One of Texas University's Urban Concept carsA line of prototypes waiting to compete.An Urban Concept CarA Shell Eco-marathon fuel tankA prototype car speeding byShell Eco-marathon AsiaAn Urban Concept carA team hard at work
One of Texas University's Urban Concept cars
One of Texas University's Urban Concept cars
A line of prototypes waiting to compete.
A line of prototypes waiting to compete.
An Urban Concept Car
An Urban Concept Car
A Shell Eco-marathon fuel tank
A Shell Eco-marathon fuel tank
A prototype car speeding by
A prototype car speeding by
Shell Eco-marathon Asia
Shell Eco-marathon Asia
An Urban Concept car
An Urban Concept car
A team hard at work
A team hard at work


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