On July 21, 2018, a team of engineering students from Duke University woke up super early on a Saturday, hoping to make history. They were headed to a track in Benson, NC, to try and break a world record that had stood for 13 years.
The actual attempt at breaking the record was just a tiny part of a long process for the team from Duke Electric Vehicles (DEV), a student club which attempts to promote “sustainable transport by inventing future electric vehicle technologies.” Every year, the club works to produce increasingly efficient and innovative electric vehicles.
This year’s prototype – a hydrogen-powered vehicle named “Maxwell” – ended up being the most efficient of all time.
TIPster and DEV co-president Shomik Verma described the feeling of breaking the Guinness World Record for most fuel-efficient hydrogen-powered vehicle as “unimaginable.” Maxwell traveled eight and a half miles of track using less than one gram of pure hydrogen. To put that in perspective, the vehicle is capable of driving to any point on the globe using the energy in just one gallon of gas.
It was a deeply influential experience for Verma, who aspires to “promote the clean energy revolution of the future.”
“It’s been great learning from other members of the team. And when we got the record, it was awesome seeing the amount of support that we received,” he said. “It’s an unimaginable experience of taking a goal that we had at the beginning of the semester and then actually achieving it.”
He attributes his early interest in science, math, and specifically, energy, to his father, who is a petroleum engineer. Around the same time he was developing a passion for energy, he took the SAT through Duke TIP’s 7th Grade Talent Search.
“I took an SAT prep course in the 7th grade that was meant for high schoolers, so that really taught me about how to work with older people, how to deal with new social situations, and how structure, work, and dedication can help you achieve your desired result,” he said.
Verma said learning about the “magnitude of the negative effects” of the oil and gas industry in high school only amplified his fascination with new types of energy technologies, like solar and hydrogen. After a visit to Duke, learning about the university’s energy program and discovering DEV, Verma knew it was where he belonged.
Now in in his senior year, Verma looks back on DEV’s efforts and the countless hours spent developing their record-breaking prototype. Turns out, building a car that gets 14,573 miles per gallon is hard work. While this year’s vehicle wasn’t built from scratch, many components of the car were optimized, and the hydrogen fuel cell within it was a completely new component (DEV usually works with electric-powered vehicles, hence the name) – one that Verma was heavily involved in facilitating.
The July 21 attempt wasn’t exactly like a movie where the hard-work montage is immediately followed by absolute victory. First, there was an attempt at the Shell Eco Marathon in Sonoma, California, in April. Despite a first-place finish, DEV and Maxwell came up short of the world record. Then, there was a highly publicized attempt on July 14, when organizations like the Duke Energy Initiative and other community members gathered to watch.
“We did three tries [during that specific day], and none of them beat the world record. That was disappointing. The week after that, we were trying to figure out what went wrong,” Verma said. “It was pretty stressful, but we figured it out.”
On the morning on July 21, the team wasn’t feeling the typical anxiousness one expects before a championship game or the final round of Quiz Bowl. All their research had shown the changes they’d made should push them past the previous record. All that was left to do was hit the track, get the team’s drive into Maxwell and hit the gas – err – hydrogen.
“We did one run and beat it by 3%, so we were like, ‘okay, we could do this.’ That lowered the tension and stress a little bit, so we made some minor improvements there,” Verma remembers. “Then, we did another run and beat it by 5% and got a little bit more confident.”
After some “daring changes” to the car, the team’s third run beat the previous record by 10%, he said, which made them “super excited.” Now, you’ve just set a world record, made history, and furthered the collective innovation of humankind. What do you do? For these college students who had spent a week in the lab and been up since 4 a.m., they opted to nap for four hours – then meet up for pizza.
In previous years, the world record holders had been grad students or professional researchers. Verma said he hopes that he and his other undergraduate teammates can “reignite” the pursuit of fuel-efficient vehicles and bring more publicity to the potential benefits of this technology.
“There are two big parts of that. One, is the reducing energy consumption, which is what DEV is trying to do. The second is revolutionizing energy generation, which is what my present research is on.”
Asked about advice for TIPsters and students dreaming of making an impact, Verma says passion is key.
“Developing that passion in people, personally, I find more important than teaching them the skills, because if they have the passion for something, then they’re going to want to learn the skills and stay dedicated to achieving the goals that they have in mind,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest message that I have.”
DEV’s next big goal? Beating the record for fuel efficiency with their electric-powered prototype. Currently, they’re just 5% less efficient than the record. Having seen the results of DEV team-effort, and knowing the TIPster helping lead the effort, we’ll be watching for another announcement soon.