Most Alaska air travelers rent a car when they get to their destination. But a group of University of Alaska Fairbanks engineering students will fly to Houston next month with their cars in their luggage.
Team Nanook will represent Alaska at the Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2013 competition for the third year. They're fielding six different vehicles -- named for Santa's reindeer -- propelled by six different forms of alternative energy.
The Nanooks did "pretty well" in the battery category in 2011, said team adviser Michael Golub. This year he likes his odds in the Fatty Acid Methyl Ester division -- better known as biodiesel.
"There are only two teams competing," he said.
The course involves 10 laps covering six miles and the winner is determined not by speed but by efficiency. "They give you 25 minutes," said Golub. "So you can't go too slow. But if you go too fast, you're burning up your power."
In last year's competition, Team Nanook trotted out a lithium battery car that went 80 miles on one kilowatt hour of energy. That means it would go between 300 and 500 miles for one dollar, depending on the cost of electricity. Several other entries did better.
Golub is a post-graduate student with a history of retrofitting vehicles with battery power, everything from cars and trucks to an ATV, a campus bus and snowmachines.
Last year he led the team to a first place victory in the Clean Snowmachine Challenge in Houghton, Mich. This year the Nanooks finished in second place.
The battery powered sled built on a Skidoo Rev XT platform hit 40 miles an hour at a trial, he said. But that speed drains the battery quickly. "You gotta go at a slow pace," he said.
The Nanooks competed for the first time in the Michigan event in 2009 and won the range contest by going 16.6 miles, he said. The experimental snowmachines can generally go 15 miles at 20 miles an hour before they need to be recharged.
In the case of the Eco-marathon Americas (similar events take place in Europe and Asia), the first challenge the Nanooks faced was getting their cars to the Houston track. Crating and shipping the rigs, as they must with snowmachines, is expensive. Funds are tight.
So the vehicles -- which weigh about 70 pounds -- are dismantled and taken as baggage. The parts then go in boxes, suitcases and overhead bags.
"It means we use lots and lots of bolts," said electrical engineering student Isaac Thompson, the student team leader. "(We) check lots of oversize luggage bags and end up building a bunch of the car on-site."
Alaska Airlines has been understanding, Golub said. "But getting them through the TSA is a chore. They have this thing with a lithium battery. You can't check them as luggage, but you can take them as carry-on."
Once they get their stuff off the carousel, they have to reassemble the cars.
The Nanooks are the only team that transports its cars as luggage, said Kayla Macke, Shell spokesperson. Other far-flung teams, like the one from Brazil, ship their vehicles as crated cargo. "The (Alaska) students often rely upon other teams' discarded and unwanted parts to make their vehicles perform," she noted.
As of March 8, 145 cars had signed up for the Houston event. Some teams are expected to be there tweaking their entries next week. The Nanooks and their yet-to-be- assembled cars won't arrive until just before the competition, which will take place April 4-7.
The Alaska contingent will have 10 members, Golub said. "There are more working on the project up here who won't go because they actually want to pass their classes."
Team Nanook has never finished in the money, Golub said. But he and Thompson like the odds this year, especially in the fuel cell category where only six teams have signed up to compete; 34 teams are entered in the battery competition, which makes the field a lot tougher.
Golub foresees a time when high tech, high efficiency performance will move from the laboratory stage to practicality, despite the fact that, as he says, "gasoline is really a wonderful fuel."
"A decent sized battery pack will be developed eventually," he said. In fact there are already batteries that might let a snowmachiner ride 100 miles at 75 miles an hour, "but they're all in the prototype, venture capitalist, you-can't-have-this category."
Electric mobility "comes down to battery technology any way you slice it," Golub said. "But there's no reason why it's not going to happen. I think Alaska should stay involved, especially with snowmachines, because no one else is really interested."
It's not all pie-in-the-sky, said Thompson. "I think we could use most of the technology from this event today. People would have to give up some luxuries like 120 mile-per-hour top speeds, 0-to-60 times, larger than necessary vehicles and power everything. But there's no reason at all that we can't have cars on the road today getting 50 to 100 miles per gallon."
The little one-person alternative powered cars in the Eco-marathon might be of use right now in small off-road communities, Golub said. "But in Fairbanks or Anchorage you'll have issues. It's not a good idea to have an electric powered vehicle going 15 miles an hour on a bike path and probably not a good idea to have it going 15 miles an hour in a car lane."
For the near future, he said he thinks northern Alaska would be a good place to stage a solar powered vehicle competition in the summer, even if the cars developed for such trials don't become mainstream right away.
After all, mass-marketing the next culture-changing Model T isn't the main goal of Team Nanook.
"We're here to become engineers and design things," Golub said. "Only by saying 'what if' can things happen."
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
Meet the cars
University of Fairbanks Team Nanook is taking six cars to the Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2013 competition in Houston. Rules require that each be powered in a different way. The team has named their entries for Santa's reindeer.
• Blitzen, solar battery electricity
• Comet, 100 percent ethanol
• Donner, battery electricity
• Cupid, hydrogen fuel cell
• Dancer, diesel
• Vixen, Fatty Acid Methyl Ester (100 percent FAME), also known as biodiesel.
A previous version of this article attributed quotes from Kayla Macke to Meg Lewis.