March 27, 2015

Students get all the way from Houston to Detroit with help from Westport Dallas CNG components

When University of Houston College of Technology students Roberto Guerra, Alberth Chavez, and Giovani Guzman  – known as Team Red Octane – entered the 2015 Shell Eco-marathon Americas, they knew they were in for a challenge. What they didn’t count on was how challenging it would be to find the critical compressed natural gas (CNG) parts needed for their entry, with only weeks left before the competition.
Team Red Octane: Roberto, Alberth, and Giovani

The team had entered in another category last year, but this year - as university engineering technology seniors who must complete this as a degree requirement - the expectations and demands are much higher. The CNG category is new to the Shell Eco-marathon, and their CNG Urban-Concept must be a realistic, four-wheel model with extensive specifications and prerequisites from the organizers.

“The competition is about fuel efficiency,” says Roberto. “There are a lot of requirements in the Urban-Concept category: doors, windshield wipers - things you’d find on a regular vehicle – safety systems; there’s a lot of rules on driver safety.”

While it’s normal for teams to be making last-minute adjustments to their vehicles at the event, it’s critical that the fuel system and body be completed and tested before arriving in Detroit. So when Team Red Octane realized that a specialty CNG tank supplier wasn’t going to come through for them, they turned to the media for help.

Making last-minute adjustments
“We entered with CNG because it’s a new category to the competition this year and thought we’d try, as it’s where fuel is headed in the future,” says Alberth. “It’s been a big challenge trying to get components and when we were a month away, we weren’t sure if we were going to get them.”

When Westport Dallas Vice-President Paul Shaffer heard about the team’s dilemma, he asked the staff in Dallas to pull together the parts and have them shipped out that day. It’s exciting to help support the efforts of innovators building a compressed natural gas vehicle, says Paul.

One of Team Red Octane's vehicles with its CNG tank from Westport

“After finding out they were lacking a few key components, our Westport team jumped into action,” says Paul. “Spreading the word about the benefits of natural gas in transportation has been at the core of Westport since our inception. We wish them success in their competition.”

In addition to their primary entry in the CNG category, Roberto, Alberth and Giovani Guzman have a second vehicle entered in the challenge. Industrial design student Jesus Garate has helped with the body of the vehicle and engineering technology student Andrew Ng is participating as the main driver. The group has also designed a gas-to-liquid (GTL) entry vehicle that is being built by a team of Elsik High School students who they are supervising and mentoring. Teaching and guiding a group of younger students, says Roberto, is where the real challenge and learning have taken place for him.

“We’re introverts and here we are mentoring students – all the of the students are learning a lot from us, and I’m learning as well like leadership skills; I have to question their actions, answer their questions and be responsible for my design,” Roberto explains.

Team Red Octane with the Elsik High School team
“So through this process we’re learning not just technical skills but life skills – leadership is not what we signed up for.”

They’ll also need to learn to walk away from the program after graduation and leave the teams to manage for themselves, which Roberto admits is difficult for self-described ‘control freaks.’ They’re delighted though, that as a result of their influence into the project, the whole district is supporting them and the Elsik students who now need some time and attention.

“We need to get the GTL vehicle up and running – that’s the last part,” says Alberth. “On the CNG vehicle, just a matter of testing it out – we have the car running and have even pushed it around a couple of times and it’s smooth”

The teams, says Roberto, are in two of the hardest categories with the most difficult fuel systems and each category they’re only competing against one other team.

“We’re taking on the hardest challenge and our competitors are a really good team,” says Roberto. “Only one other team can say they’re in this category so we have pride in that.”

The best part? “Even if we don’t win, we’re guaranteed second place.”

Follow @TeamRedOctane on Twitter

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