Off to the races

2 Houston student teams to compete in Shell’s international eco-friendly driving challenge

Two Houston student teams are competing in Shell's international competition. Courtesy of Shell

What started as a bet in the '30s has evolved into the Shell's Eco-marathon. The competition challenges high school and college students to engineer the fuel-efficient vehicles. And at this year's Shell Eco-marathon Americas, two teams will be representing Houston.

Students from Rice University and James E. Taylor High School are competing in the Shell Eco-marathon Americas, which begins April 3 and wraps up April 6. This year's competition is being held at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California, and will include more than 90 teams from high schools and colleges throughout North and South America.

That's a far cry from the competition's origins. Shell's first fuel efficiency competition took place in 1939, when two Illinois scientists struck a friendly bet over who could engineer a vehicle that ran the furthest on a gallon of gas. The company held an employee competition that year and, save for around a decade and a half in the '70s and '80s, the competition has been held in some capacity every year.

"We really needed to get more young people interested in technology careers," says Pam Rosen, general manager of the Shell Eco-marathon. "It [doesn't] even need to be with Shell. It's more about the method, science, and helping [students[ gravitate toward those opportunities."

The Shell Eco-marathon has adapted with the decades. Students design vehicles that run on gas, diesel, and biofuels, as well as batteries and electricity. Vehicles fueled by GTL (gas-to-liquid) and hydrogen have also competed in the Eco-marathon, Rosen says.

"It kind of ebbs and flows toward what we see the automotive manufacturers trending toward," Rosen says.

The teams from Rice University is a returning presence to the Eco-marathon, while the team from James E. Taylor High School is competing in the Eco-marathon for its first time. Both teams engineered battery-powered electric urban concept vehicles, Rosen says, and describes "urban concept vehicles" as being similar to Smart cars.

The team that takes the top prize in the Americas' urban concept vehicle competition will compete in the Eco-marathon's regional qualifiers in London. As for the lucky winner? They'll head to Italy, where they'll get to drive their vehicle on the racetrack used in the San Marino Grand Prix in Marino, Italy, Rosen says.

Syzygy Plasmonics, which is creating a cleaner energy source that runs on hydrogen, closed a $5.8 million round. Photo via plasmonics.tech

A Houston technology company is doing something that, for many decades, wasn't thought to be possible. Syzygy Plasmonics is creating a hydrogen fuel cell technology that produces a cheaper source of energy that releases fewer carbon emissions.

The hydrogen-fueled technology originated out of research done over two decades by two Rice University professors, Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander.

"There are rules in chemical engineering, and you can't break them, but we follow them in a different way," CEO Trevor Best tells InnovationMap. "What we're doing is fundamentally different. We're using light instead of heat to drive chemical reactions."

Syzygy's technology is structured more like a battery than that of a combustion engine. Inside the technology, there are cells, lights, and mirrors making as bright as possible, which then spurs a reaction that creates energy. It has the potential to be cheaper — it's made with cheaper materials — and, of course, cleaner than traditional fueling technology with fewer carbon emissions released.

This new photocatalytic chemical reactor has the potential to shake up the industrial gas, chemical, and energy industries — something that hasn't gone unnoticed by investors. Syzygy just closed a $5.8 million Series A round led by MIT's The Engine and Houston-based The GOOSE Society of Texas. Evok Innovations, a previous investor in the company, and angel investors from the Creative Destruction Lab also contributed to the round.

The funds will allow for Syzygy to continue to develop its technology and grow its team. Best tells InnovationMap that he expects to launch a full-size pilot by the end of 2020 and is already in talks with potential clients who are interested in the technology for industrial purposes.

"We're starting to solidify relationships and get customers ready," Best says.

Earlier this year, the company also received funding from the Department of Energy and from the National Science Foundation SBIR Program. The DOE tasked Syzygy with creating a reactor that transforms ammonia into hydrogen for fueling purposes. For the SBIR Program, the company is creating a reactor that processes carbon dioxide.