U of T may see its first hydrogen-powered vehicle at the end of the year, courtesy of the University of Toronto Supermileage Team (UTSM). Spearheaded by fourth-year mechanical engineering student Christine Yaromich, the team of over 100 members has been working hard this year to build a vehicle that will run on hydrogen. They hope to bring it to the Shell eco-marathon, where STEM students from all around the world compete with energy-efficient cars they have built. 

The Varsity spoke with Yaromich and two second-year Rotman Commerce students working on the business end of UTSM, Selina Yang and Elaine Zhou, about their team’s mission and the groundbreaking innovation that they have been working on. 

Hydrogen-powered vehicles are a game changer 

UTSM started off as a two-member team, and has now become a team with over 100 dedicated students working toward designing, building, and safely racing fuel-efficient vehicles. The group has previously worked on its ‘prototype vehicle’ — an internal combustion vehicle that uses gasoline to power the automobile. The top mileage for this vehicle was 3,421 miles per gallon, the equivalent of driving from Toronto to New York City on just 543 milliliters of gasoline — approximately the volume of a bottle of water! 

While electrical and gasoline powered vehicles have dominated the automobile industry for a few years, the popularity of hydrogen-powered vehicles seems to be catching up. This year, the UTSM is building a hydrogen-operated vehicle. 

“It’s about renewable energy at the end of the day,” said Yang. In electrical cars, the electricity is produced from the combustion of fossil fuels. The benefit of the hydrogen vehicle is that it takes hydrogen and oxygen into its engine and produces water, a byproduct that is not harmful to the environment — and something that many automobiles do not produce. 

As exciting as all this sounds, the project does require the team to take precautions. “There are many safety protocols that we do need to go through. And with that, we just need to be very careful when [we’re] using hydrogen,” explained Yaromich. Hydrogen is extremely flammable, so it’s important to be stringent. “We’re using a very, very small amount.”

Another challenge that the UTSM faces is funding. Due to the pandemic, it has become difficult for the UTSM to come up with enough funding for their projects. As a result, they have had to be more careful when spending money on different materials and supplies required for the vehicle.

Promoting the message of sustainability

While winning the Shell eco-marathon is a short-term goal for the team, they have set their sights far into the future. “If our design is very successful, especially at the Shell eco-marathon, we can begin pitching our design and usage to corporate sponsors [and] companies for them to incorporate into their vehicle building so that we can start spreading energy-efficient vehicles into practical situations for people… I think that’d be very long term, though,” said Zhou. 

Apart from building the hydrogen-powered vehicle, the team hopes to continue to promote sustainability through various sustainability-focused projects that it is working on. “It’s really important for us to be able to… have a better grasp of these new technologies that we will be able to use in the future,” said Yang.