Start your (eco-friendly) engines

As Mizzou Eco-Racing prepares two cars for the Shell Eco-marathon in April, one team member also works toward his own goal: going back home to rebuild Indonesia.

By Rebecca Dell 

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Update May 5, 2014: Mizzou Eco-Racing won the Communications Award at the Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2014 and received an honorable mention for the Safety Award. The team’s hydrogen car came in ranked No. 2.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — In a cinder-block-walled room in the basement of Engineering West, crowded with shelves of electronics and equipment, five engineering students sort through chips and wires and junk. The lid to an old solar-powered car sits atop a metal cabinet. A board with wires trailing from it – the beginning of an electric car motor controller – sits on one workbench.

Naasa Fikri scuttles around the room, answering questions about whether this gadget is still needed, telling his fellows how much that gizmo cost.

“Naasa, do you know where this computer came from?” one of his fellow students asks.

Fikri peers at the label and points out a year. 1992.

Older than both of them.

Fikri, 20, dropped into the American race for clean energy as a freshman at the University of Missouri; before that, he was consuming high school and life lessons from a Sampoerna Academy in his native Indonesia. He’s the head electrical engineer of Mizzou Eco-Racing, one small piece of the global alternative energy puzzle. Armed with his U.S. college education and his schooling as a Mizzou Eco-Racing member, Fikri plans to debark back home and propel his dear country forward.

Racing for clean air and glory

Right now, Mizzou Eco-Racing is evolving for the second time. The first was in 2005 with the end of the solar car era that had lasted since the team’s inception in 1991. The next iteration was the Mizzou Hydrogen Car Team, where team members typically built a hydrogen fuel cell-powered car every two years and raced it in the annual Shell Eco-marathon, a competition where students test energy-efficient vehicles they’ve designed and built.

This year, with the transition to Mizzou Eco-Racing, members are building two different types of cars to enter — a battery electric and a hydrogen electric — marking the first time they’ve worked on two in parallel. In order to comply with Shell Eco-marathon rules, Fikri, the head electrical engineer, must supervise the building of a motor controller from scratch, rather than buying a pre-made board like the team does for the more complicated hydrogen-powered car.

The Shell Eco-marathon began in 1995 as a reincarnation of a 1939 internal competition between Shell engineers. This year, there will be three competitions in Asia, Americas and Europe, recognizing the worldwide need to diversify fuel sources and increase energy efficiency.

For the Americas competition in Houston, high school and college teams finance, design, build and drive cars in different categories. Despite the reference to racing, speed isn’t the goal: Teams vie to build the most fuel-efficient car. Following the most efficient steering pattern, Fikri says, the cars putter along at an average of 15 mph. Last year’s model for Mizzou, TigerGen III boasted a calculated 299 mpg. For this year’s race in April, the team is hoping to bust an old team record of 476 mpg, set with the lighter TigerGen II.

Wrangling technology

Mizzou Eco-Racing provides an outlet for students to practice the theory they learn in engineering classes. Team advisor and MU Professor Emeritus Dr. Michael Devaney says the team also keeps him learning and helps MU with recruiting.

“As a teacher in a classroom, there’s no way in the world that I could expect my students to do as much work — and learn as much, OK — as these individuals can through the course of these experiences,” he says.

The hydrogen technology used in one of the cars, despite its promise for clean energy, presents challenges for not only the students but also for the whole energy industry to solve.

Hydrogen fuel cells, shaped like slices of bread within a loaf, work by separating hydrogen gas into protons and electrons. The cell then harnesses the electrons as electricity. It’s a simple concept, but hydrogen gas doesn’t exist ready-made in nature; it needs to be distilled from other substances. That reaction requires energy. Hydrogen fuel cells are also expensive, due to the platinum used in them. And some are concerned about the safety of carting around compressed, flammable gas. But Dr. Levi Thompson, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, says engineers and scientists have minimized risks associated with products like lithium batteries and gasoline and can do the same with hydrogen.

“Every fuel has some hazards associated with it,” he says. “Hydrogen is not unique.”

Although the number of hydrogen-powered cars in use in the U.S. in 2010 was only 421, Thompson anticipates hydrogen powered cars catching on commercially. Devaney is more cautious in his estimation.

“I think they have promise,” he says. “Much will depend on competing fuels, and to some extent the legal framework for energy.”

Challenging deforestation back home

Fikri’s current work is far from his home in Ponorogo Regency, Indonesia, where he grew up with his parents and younger sister in a typical two-bedroom house. The country, made up of over 17,000 islands scattered between Australia and mainland Asia, boasts endless coastline and lush inland mountains.

But it also suffers from corruption and urban air pollution, and it relies heavily on fossil fuels for electricity. A column The Hindu newspaper’s website says that clearing land for palm oil plantations is ravaging the natural habitat of orangutans.

And so, years before he came to the U.S. and started building eco-friendly cars, Fikri was already preaching kindness to the earth at an eighth-grade English competition. He invented the following fable for the competition:

Once upon a time, animals abounded in the forest. He, Fikri, was a monkey, the leader of the jungle. The monkeys warned their friends to go somewhere safe as humans carelessly logged the trees, leaving no roots to net the soil.

One day, Fikri’s story goes, a hard rain triggered a landslide, squelching the humans.

The fable was born of Fikri’s own experience: Human overuse had caused a verdant hillside near his hometown to turn sandy and brown. Fikri internalized the lesson.

Priming for international study

Fikri’s education has groomed him for when he goes back to help propel Indonesia and the energy world forward. He earned a high school scholarship to the Sampoerna Academy in Malang, several hours from his home, to take part in the educational vision of Indonesian billionaire Putera Sampoerna. “We must draw a more comprehensive blueprint for a better tomorrow on the fabric of today that is unfurling before us,” Sampoerna, who sold his clove cigarette business to Philip Morris in 2005, writes on his Foundation’s website.

Becky Showmaker, the director of sponsored student programs at MU, calls the Sampoerna Academy style holistic in developing leaders and thinkers. A missionary’s child who grew up in Indonesia, Showmaker spent five weeks in the fall of 2011 visiting the Sampoerna Academies and helping prepare top students for study in the United States. She first met Fikri on this trip. Showmaker led after-school workshops in essay-writing; she quelled fears that the entire United States was like the mean streets of New York depicted in movies; and she told them about cultural differences between Indonesia and the United States. Students, she recalls, were particularly amused at the idea that some Americans wear pajamas to class.

“It just was mind blowing to them, because they’re so professional in the classroom and so formal,” she says.

One evening as Showmaker was about to present to Fikri’s class about life in America, the power went out. Determined to continue, the students sat on the floor around Showmaker. She showed the powerpoint presentation on two tiny laptops, the screens providing the only light in the building.

Fikri and four other Sampoerna students to come to MU in 2012. As a computer engineering major, Fikri is delving into his main interests: power electronics, or the conversion of raw energy to electrical energy and the distribution of that electrical energy, and mechatronics, or the creation and use of industrial robots for manufacturing.

Whichever direction he goes long-term, he wants to take it home. Thanks to the Sampoerna program, he’s already been back for one internship, and he’s headed home this summer for another.

“I want to go back to my country and then build Indonesia, basically,” he says. “My career would be the best way to actually contribute to my country.”

And then, he says, he’d donate to forest protection programs.

Belonging both here and there

Fikri, who found the team through a poster in the physics building, agrees that the team provides opportunities to perform technical skills learned in class; he’s also practiced social proficiencies like public speaking and problem solving. And he’s found a sort of a family in Mizzou Eco-Racing, says Amber Honig, the team’s head of public relations. Team President Marcus Friedrich, a 28-year-old Navy veteran and an only child, sees Fikri as a sort of international little brother, a bundle of energy and hard work ethics to guide along and joke around with. Last year at the Eco-marathon, Friedrich and another team member told Fikri they wanted to change the completed wiring in the car to black and yellow so it would match MU colors. The rules say the wires must be either red and black or orange and purple.

Fikri sighed, Friedrich recounts, and said, Really?

Yeah, they said.

Ok, Fikri replied. But I need to eat first.

Friedrich was joking, but Fikri would’ve done it if Friedrich were serious. Fikri’s work ethic and respect for team members dictates his behavior.

“At that time, he’s my boss, so I do just whatever he asks me to do,” Fikri says.

He’s a hard worker, Showmaker says, and courageous for leaving home twice for his education: once to go to Malang, once to come to the U.S.

Right now he’s getting ready for April. The cars aren’t ready yet, but the schedule is under control.

“We can see the finish line,” he says.

Yes, he may belong in the U.S. for a while, helping Mizzou Eco-Racing crank out two cars in time for April’s Eco-marathon. Yes, he may still have classes and internships ahead of him. But these are the steps he’s taking around the world that will lead him back home.

Originally published March 21, 2014. Edited May 5, 2014.  

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