Founded on a Texas cattle ranch in 1947 by oilman and philanthropist Tom Slick, non-profit research institute Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) now employs more than 3,000 employees and works with governments and corporations across the world.
SwRI gained early prominence for their automotive and environmental research - but in the years since has conducted cutting edge R&D for a range of STEM industries - most recently gaining worldwide fame for leading NASA space missions.
The San Antonio-based facility is a long-term Shell Eco-marathon partner. Among other things, its staff are responsible for judging the Off-Track Award for Technical Innovation, as well as being part of the team responsible for conducting critical Technical Inspections, the final milestone for Shell Eco-marathon teams to meet before they can get out on track.
We caught up with SwRI VP of Fuels and Lubricants Steve Marty to find out why they support Shell Eco-marathon.
Hi Steve, tell us a bit more about your relationship with Shell Eco-marathon.
Steve: One of the oldest parts of our business, because we are in Texas, is oil, so we’ve got to know Shell very well over the years and worked with them on many R&D projects. Through this we’ve identified that we share the same corporate values in terms of STEM.
Shell Eco-marathon offers high school and college kids the opportunity to build various high mileage vehicles, using either an internal combustion engine (gasoline, ethanol or diesel), battery electric, or hydrogen - and just trying to see how much usable work they can translate to vehicle distance for the minimum amount of energy used.
This is exactly the kind of scientific and engineering problem solving that we do at SwRI, and produces the kind of STEM interested engineers that Shell and SwRI hire.
The engineering industry at the moment is full of a lot of people nearing retirement age. We have more scientists and engineers retiring than being produced by colleges and universities, this is a scary shortfall.
We want to work with competitions like Shell Eco-marathon to get the message out there that the STEM field is positive. There's a lot about Shell and SwRI that align, and that view is one of them. We believe it’s our mission and our purpose as a non-profit entity.
What is the most satisfying thing about being involved with the programme?
There’s something fulfilling about judging the Technical Innovation Off-track award. It’s looking for things that are new and novel and outside of the box. Something that’s different, a new potential game changer.
And sometimes these awards carry on over into my work life.
I saw a team that was utilising exhaust waste heat and turning that into electricity to run the lights on the dashboard - things like this will make it into the mainstream.
These are the things that we geek out about, that make the competition really exciting.
Also for the Americas Regional competition we provide judges for the technical innovation award, but we have a fairly large staff of a dozen or so who volunteer their time to work in the technical inspection area, and the start finish line for the competition.
The technical inspection is no small feat, so students sometimes need guidance to get through it. It’s not always a hard yes or no. It’s important to have people there to work with the teams and point them in the right direction to successfully complete the inspections.
We know the time and effort it took to get the car there, and when they pass, or learn what they need to do in order to make the right modification to pass, it’s satisfying.
What are your Shell Eco-marathon highlights?
It’s hard to pick highlights. There have been many, but the race itself is such a good occasion for me.
When we judge the Off-track award, I’m often in the pit watching a lot of them experience this for the first time. They are running around, getting things ready and making last minute modifications to cars.
And you see that this is a real competition, there is that race atmosphere, electricity and excitement in the air, and it gets you feeling their passion.
And you get to witness the students working as a team, and overcoming a challenge.
They put their heart and soul into this, hundreds of hours of work, and sometimes you get heartbreak when it doesn’t work out, but that’s all part of learning.
One thing I get to tell them when I'm there is that they are doing things that a lot of their peers haven’t done, this sets them apart in the job market.
They have worked with their hands, on a team, and solved a problem. I get to tell them, if they don’t already know, they will have more job options.
The Shell Eco-marathon programme provides the students with something they can’t get in the classroom, and this will help them as their careers progress.