In a lab at the University of Colorado, a team of mechanical engineering students is designing an eco-marathon car with hopes it can achieve 2,500 miles per gallon.

She's aerodynamic, with a sleek black frame adorned with CU and sponsor logos. She weighs about 135 pounds, though her aluminum parts are being replaced with lighter weight carbon fiber. And, her name is Ralphie.

The seniors on CU's Shell Eco-Marathon team will give her a run April 5-7 in Houston at the annual competition. Until then, you might see them zipping around in the vehicle on CU's East Campus research park, where they are logging hours of driver training before the big show.

"I kind of feel like this is my baby," said Team Manager Austin Schipper.

Schipper began volunteering for the team during his freshman year. Now an official member of the five-man, all-senior team, he and his teammates work equivalent to full-time jobs engineering the competition vehicle, sometimes logging 60 hours a week on the project.

Last year, the CU team placed second in the competition, which is a challenge to high school and college students from North and South America to design, build and test fuel-efficient vehicles that travel the farthest distance using the least amount of energy.

CU's team achieved 1,767 miles per gallon. (In the 15-mile trek, the CU vehicle used 13 milliliters of fuel, which is less gas than evaporates from a car on a hot summer day, explained Kelsey Spurr, the team's financial manager).

The winning team in 2012 was from Evansville, Ind., and achieved 2,188 miles per gallon. More than 1,000 students from the United States, Canada, Mexico and Brazil, along with their 112 vehicles, competed in the 2012 challenge in the Americas. Shell awarded $44,000 in prizes to the winning teams, in addition to the travel stipends that were offered to each participating team.

Among this year's upgrades to the CU vehicle are sensors and driver controls on the steering wheel, improving engine efficiency by bettering things like engine compression, explained team members. Also, using carbon fiber to replace existing heavy metal parts will lower the vehicle weight without a reduction in strength -- meaning less gas will need to be consumed to get the vehicle to speed, the students said.

"There are a bunch of big leaps taking us forward this year," Schipper said.

The competition started out as a wager between two Shell scientists in 1939. They competed to see who could achieve the greatest gas mileage on their own personal cars. It evolved into a more formal challenge, with the first organized competition taking place in 1985.

This year marks CU's sixth year in the Eco-Marathon competition.

From the beginning, driver ergonomics have been key in the design, Schipper said. He compares the feeling of driving the vehicle to being in a go-kart. The vehicle holds one person, and the lightest person on the team drives the car at the competition.

Spurr said the project has helped the mechanical engineers learn other disciplines -- including electrical engineering and marketing to garner sponsorships.

"We're all gearheads turned eco-nuts," Spurr said.

Other teammates include: Richard Viehdorfer, Benjamin Fuoss and Kyle Jacques.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or anasb@dailycamera.com.