The Greatest Benefit

How the EVX Hybrid team from West Philly High School does biodiesel
By Luke Geiver | January 12, 2011

Some people say the greatest benefit of biodiesel use has to do with independence, or greenhouse gas reductions, or even as an alternative option for an economy that needs all the energy it can get. Simon Hauger, a former math and physics teacher turned biodiesel-hybrid vehicle developer, holds a different opinion of biodiesel’s greatest benefit, however, and he has the students of West Philadelphia High School’s EVX team to thank.

More than 10 years ago, Hauger began searching for a way to positively engage the inner-city kids he saw struggling to graduate, let alone make it into college. The answer he found was fueled by biodiesel. “When you think of all the negative stereotypes,” Hauger says of the West Philly community, “unfortunately, a lot of them are true. The inner-city high schools are pretty tough.” But, by combining the fuel qualities of biodiesel with a hybrid electric motor system, Hauger found a way to create a sustainable after-school program that eventually flipped the graduation rate for those participating completely on its head. Compared with those attending West Philadelphia who aren’t EVX members, 70 percent of whom will not attend a post secondary institution, 80 to 90 percent of all EVX team members not only graduate, but attend post secondary schools all across the country.

This is more than just another feel-good story about a caring, hardworking teacher and a successful after-school program that just happens to include biodiesel, however. Look at the publicity the student team has already received from the Discovery Channel, the Today Show, and President Obama himself, to see the importance of this school and these kids. Simon, who grew up in West Philly, shows that to measure the benefits and impact of biodiesel, there’s more to it than any life-cycle assessment or greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction level test could ever account for.

From Go-kart to Supercar

The EVX team hasn’t always produced biodiesel hybrid vehicles. The story starts in the shop of the Automotive Academy at West Philadelphia High School (think of it as the vocational wing of the school), with a go-kart that just happened to be lying around. After converting the go-kart to run on electricity with the help of Simon and other instructors, the students started showing interest. “We were looking for ways to really engage the kids and help them develop their skills,” Hauger says. “There was no master plan, it just kind of happened.”

After recognizing the potential of the program and the reaction from his students, Hauger began a fundraising campaign, raising money, expertise and the necessary components to build electric vehicles—and he was successful. The team competed in a national competition, the Tour de Sol, which was based on low emission levels in conjunction with high fuel efficiency, and won it with an electric car built in the school’s shop. The principal and other teachers thought the team was getting in way over its head, Hauger says, but that didn’t stop him from continuing the program and researching national competitions for the team to compete in. The element of competition drove the students to improve in the classroom as well. If any of the students on the team received any D’s or F’s, had an absentee rate of 20 percent or higher, or were suspended from school, they were “benched” until they improved, Hauger says.

“In 2001, we were competing against a modified biodiesel vehicle in the Tour de Sol,” he says. “That was our first experience with biodiesel.” Following that experience, the team, made up of students ranging from freshman to seniors, became enamored with biodiesel. The team took a Jeep and turned it into a biodiesel hybrid, using a Yanmar two-cylinder industrial lawn mower engine fueled by biodiesel to generate electricity for the vehicle. “We basically had a lawnmower-type throttle, and when we saw the battery power dropping we just kind of throttled it up.”

After learning more about the properties of biodiesel, and even making their own from waste vegetable oil for a while, the team realized, as Simon notes, “There is no downside to it.” It’s better for the engine, the lubrication and cleaning properties make it better for the car and better for the air, he adds. The new knowledge of biodiesel, combined with the experience at the 2001 Tour de Sol, added to the team’s desire to build hybrid vehicles and helped transform once-struggling teens into young innovators capable of competing at a national level, teens who would eventually win hybrid vehicle contests four separate times. And their accomplishments weren’t achieved solely because of Hauger's enthusiasm. “If you hang out with us,” he says, “there is a lot of dialogue. It isn’t like adults are just driving the decision making.”

In 2007, the team put all its work to the test, and made the leap from participating in low-prize competitions like the Tour de Sol, which netted only a few thousand dollars for a win, to a $10 million dollar first-place prize competition known as the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize, a global competition calling for vehicles that were affordable, safe, desirable and achieved at least 100 miles per gallon.

Quest for the X Prize

The team relished Hauger's challenge to compete nationally. Using the sleek design offered by the Factory Five GTM sports car, the team converted a powerful electric engine to run, in part, on biodiesel. Hauger says the team could not afford the expensive batteries required to run the electric engine so they incorporated a Volkswagen TDI engine, the ALH, to help. The whole idea, he says, was that “if you are driving around the city, you run on just the electric motor. But if you want to turn it up a little, you can turn on the diesel engine to get added power.” In the GTM, the TDI engine ran the rear wheels and the electric motor ran the front wheels.

The work by the team garnered national attention, drawing exposure from the Today Show and the Discovery Channel, and the attention continued to grow as the team made it further and further in the X Prize.

The competition began with each of the 111 teams having to present a business plan that showed its entry could be viably produced to the tune of 10,000 vehicles per year. Hauger enlisted help from Drexel University to create a full business plan for the EVX team. Out of all the teams, which represented 11 different countries and ranged from start-ups to multinational conglomerates, the West Philly crew was the only high school-based team to participate, and one of only 48 teams that made it through the business plan round. After the first on-track event, it then made it to the round of 22 teams, before its journey ended due to charging issues. “In hindsight,” Hauger says, “we overlooked our charging scenario and ended up wasting a lot of electricity when we were charging our cars, so we didn’t make the cuts for the finals.” The team, however, impressed the competitors enough that the winners actually decided to partner with EVX for their next project.

“It’s not a secret formula, having a hybrid vehicle,” Hauger says. “I think the thing that makes the program work is getting something good to do, building a project that is real.” Ann Cohen, the team’s manager, couldn’t agree more. After years working for the automotive mechanics Union in Philadelphia, Cohen joined the EVX team and started fundraising. While she pins her excitement and interest in the team on the ability of the students to continually beat “the big boys,” she points to the program’s impact on energy and breaking America’s addiction to foreign oil as its greatest assest.“The most important thing to me,” she says, “is giving an incredible variety and wealth of opportunities to have a voice in one of the most critical issues in the country. I don’t think it can be any more important than that.”

That voice Cohen refers too, seen through the commitment by Hauger and his team to continue churning out sleek, sexy, hybrid vehicles of the future, has been heard by President Obama as well. In a speech based on the EVX team after it was officially eliminated from the X Prize, the president spoke about the importance of the team’s work. “What they had was a program that challenged them (the students) to solve problems and work together. To learn and build and create, and that’s the kind of spirit and ingenuity that we have to foster. That is the potential that we can harness all across America,” he said.

To say that for more than 10 years Hauger’s EVX team members have reached that potential, evidenced by the team’s improved graduation and post-secondary institutional acceptance rates, might be an understatement. “To say it out loud,” Hauger says of the team’s success, “sounds kind of ridiculous—that an inner-city high school on a shoestring budget could develop a really compelling hybrid sports car. But we did.” Those cars are cool, Cohen says, “but the kids are cooler.”

Without a B20 blend of biodiesel it might be hard to envision the EVX team’s success turning out in a similar way, and arguing that the greatest benefit created by biodiesel has more to do with a new hope for a bunch of students from West Philadelphia than GHG reductions or energy independence, might be going too far—or maybe not. Of the team’s accomplishments, Obama said, “These are actually the kinds of things that 10 years from now, 20 years from now, we are going to look back and say this is something that made a difference.”
Author: Luke Geiver
Associate Editor, Biodiesel Magazine
(701) 738-4944
[email protected]

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