MOBILITY, Fuel for Change

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, April 5, 2010

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Green Design

Subject Area

  • Language Arts
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Technology

Lesson Time

1.5 hours


Gas stations are an iconic staple of the American landscape. We use fuel for cars, trucks, airplanes and even to heat our homes. Most fuels are derived from petroleum, a fossil fuel used in internal combustion engines. Petroleum however is a scarce resource and quickly disappearing. The use and consumption of this resource also produces some of the unhealthiest byproducts in the world that contribute to air quality and climate change issues worldwide.
This iconic 1940s painting, "Gas" by artist Edward Hopper shows the importance of fuel in the mid-century view of Americanism.
As we push forward into the future, new fuels and ideas on how to power everything from cars, to boats and airplanes are being pioneered, designed and tested. In this lesson, students will learn about conventional and renewable fuel sources that demonstrate potential to become the new fuels of the future. Students will design a fuel type and infrastructure to bring this fuel to vehicles, thinking critically about environmental and social impacts.  This lesson compliments Social Studies lessons about Economics and Language Arts lessons related to communication and evaluation skills.

National Standards

Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects
Grades 6-8  
Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects
Grades 6-8
Level III (Grade 6-8)
Level III (Grade 6-8)


• Students will design a new concept fuel for the car of the future using waste or renewable (eco-friendly) materials.
• Students will consider the impacts of petroleum-based fuel consumption and harvesting.
• Students will use design-thinking to develop an infrastructure and delivery system that brings the “fuel of the future” to consumers.



Pencil, scrap paper, poster paper, markers, glue, scissors, maps


  • Electric Car - an automobile that uses electric motors and motor controllers for propulsion, in place of more common propulsion methods such as the internal combustion engine(ICE).
  • Internal combustion engine - an engine in which the combustion of a fuel (generally, fossil fuel) occurs with an oxidizer (usually air) in a combustion chamber.
  • Biofuels - liquid fuels derived from plant materials
  • Alternative Fuel - Substitutes for traditional liquid, oil-derived motor vehicle fuels like gasoline and diesel.


A History of the Automobile and Fuels (10 minutes – Review)
Start your lesson with a discussion about transportation and cars. What powers a car? What is gasoline? Where is it made and how exactly does it power a car?
Ask students to tell you stories about road trips, gas stations and using fuel to run things. Most automobiles used today are propelled by gasoline (also known as petrol) or diesel internal combustion engines, which are known to cause air pollution and are also blamed for contributing to climate change and global warming.
Talk about the history of cars and the fuels they use. Gasoline was not a common thing back in the 1800s and early 1900s. The first cars actually ran on steam or electricity. Gasoline or diesel didn’t come into the picture until the late 1800s and early 1900s.
• Ferdinand Verbiest, living in a Jesuit mission in China, built what may have been the earliest automobile around 1672 • Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built the first confirmed version of a steam powered automobile in 1771
• Electric automobiles - In 1838, Scotsman Robert Davidson built an electric locomotive that attained a speed of 4 miles per hour (6 km/h).
• 1885-built Benz Patent Motorwagen, the first car to go into production with an internal combustion engine. Early attempts at making and using internal combustion engines were hampered by the lack of suitable fuels, particularly liquids, and the earliest engines used gas mixtures.
• 1908–1927 Ford Model T — the most widely produced and available car of the era.
It is interesting to compare the design of the 1885 Benz (top) with that of the 1909 Ford Model T (below).
Discuss common fuel types used today:
  • Diesel Engine: an internal-combustion engine that burns heavy oil
  • Gasoline: a volatile flammable mixture of hydrocarbons (hexane, heptane, octane, etc.) derived from petroleum
Environmental Impacts (5-10 minutes – Investigate)
What is the environmental impact of using conventional fuels like gasoline? When we burn gasoline what is the byproduct? The impact of the automobile on our local environment has been enormous. From the manufacturing process to the junkyard, cars consume resources releasing harmful emissions into the air and contributing to climate change, land use and water quality problems. Not only this, but the building of automobiles requires gathering vast quantities of metal, glass, plastics, rubber, and other materials, and then assembling thousands of vehicles through human and machine labor. The production process itself consumes enormous amounts of energy, and the factory output produces its own array of pollutants.
Once on the road, automobiles are the prime consumers of oil and gas, stimulating increased drilling, transporting, and refining of petroleum products to meet the rising demand. Since the internal combustion engine continues to dominate automobile propulsion, cars dispense vast amounts of pollution in the form of air emissions, noise, used oil, and disposable parts.
How are designers in transportation, automobile design and urban planning addressing the need for new fuels and vehicles that use these fuels? Discuss some forms of alternative fuels:
  • Biofuels:  Fuel made from renewable resources such as cellulose, corn or plant oils. (Debate with your students the real costs and benefits of some biofuels that are made from corn and soy.)
  • Flexfuel: biofuels from ethanol like soy and corn.
  • Electricity: Some cars run on batteries that store electrical energy.
  • Fuel Cells: A fuel cell is an electrochemical cell that produces electricity from a fuel tank.
  • Hydrogen: Hydrogen is used in some alternative fuel vehicles, stored in special tanks or produced through electrolysis of water.
What are the pros and cons of these fuel types? Why aren’t they used more widely? Who determines what is used anyway? Visit the Society for Sustainable Mobility online to find some answers:
Types of cars:
  • Electric Car – Electric cars have a battery bank that can be charged through solar technologies or an electric power source.
  • Hydrogen Vehicle – Hydrogen vehicles use onboard tanks to power their engine.
  • Hybrid – Hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius use a combination of battery reserves and gasoline engines to save fuel.
  • Biodiesel Truck/Car – Many cars with diesel engines can be easily converted to use biofuels.
Ask each student to research a fuel and car type using the table below. Each student should consider some pros and cons of each fuel and its associated car type:

Automobile Type




Electric Car


Hydrogen Vehicle


Hybrid (Gas/Electric)


Biodiesel Car/Truck


Investigating the System (10 minutes - Frame/Reframe)
Now that we know a little bit about fuels and some alternatives, let’s consider elements that affect the feasibility and use of alternative fuels.
First, let’s talk about the parties involved in the production, distribution and use of fuels.
  • Car companies and designers
  • Fuel providers and companies
  • Infrastructure designers and planners
What kinds of variables affect the feasibility of alternative fuels?
  • Market Demand
  • Production Costs
  • Availability of Raw Materials
  • Tariffs/Trade Policies
  • Infrastructure
Discuss these issues as a class. Conduct a survey in the community or school. Ask students to find out who has a hybrid car or actually uses alternative fuels in the area. Why do they use alternative fuels? Where are they available and for what kinds of vehicles?
Talk with students about designers addressing some of these infrastructure questions now and in the future. Reference the 2010 National Design Triennial’s case study of the ChargePointTM Networked Charging Station:
  • ChargePointTM Networked Charging Station - One of the challenges of plug-in and electric vehicles is recharging the battery. The finite driving range of electric car batteries means that replenishing points need to be readily available. California based Coulomb Technologies has developed the ChargePoint Network, a system of smart charging stations that provides curbside charging for plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles. Since the majority of daily car trips are less than forty miles, drivers do not have to worry about “range anxiety,” as their cars can be conveniently recharged in parking spaces at home or at work, or while the owner is shopping. Electric power distributed by these charging stations is obtained from utility grids, some of which, as in Chicago, Florida, and San Diego, is partly supplied by solar panels.
Math Connection
Calculate the fuel costs between two different vehicle types:
  • 2008 Jeep Wrangler: 17 mpg
  • 2008 Honda Civic Hybrid: 42 mpg
  • Average Miles Driven per year: 15,000 miles
  • Average Cost of Gasoline: $3.50/gallon
How much money will be spent on gasoline each year for the Jeep and Civic Hybrid? What is the cost difference and savings?
Alternative Fuel of the Future: Part One (10 minutes – Generate)
Now its time for a design challenge. Divide students into teams and challenge each team to think of a plan to jump-start the new fuel of the future. Encourage students to think big, think crazy!  Think about ways to use waste materials and to eliminate air emissions; for instance a car that runs on scrap drywall or plastic bottles.
Challenge each team to brainstorm ideas regarding what kind of alternative fuel they would develop for a transportation infrastructure or car of the near future. If necessary, assign each team one alternative fuel and ask them to develop a strategy that addresses the following concerns:
  • Raw Material – what raw material is being used for this fuel, where would it come from and how could the extraction process minimize negative impact on the environment?
  • Distribution – how will you get the fuel to people?
  • Infrastructure – what kind of fueling stations and cars would be needed to use this fuel?
Fuel types to explore may include: biofuels, hydrogen, electric batteries (EV), fuel cells.
Alternative Fuel of the Future: Part One (20-30 minutes – Edit and Develop)
Allow each team 20-30 minutes to think about the infrastructure or delivery system they would design for their fuel.  Allow students to look at maps of the local area.  Encourage them to consider practical issues such as the distance a car can travel without a gas station for instance
Each team will design an infrastructure plan for the fuel and provide some sample maps to illustrate their plans. Each team should write a short essay to describe why someone should buy their fuel and how it would get to their community.
Afterward each team will share their ideas and maps for the future. (Share and Evaluate)
Wrap up this lesson with a discussion about current trends in alternative fuels. What is the likely future of electric or hybrid cars on the road in the future? (Finalize) Discuss how your school or students can get involved. Some ideas include:
  • Riding bikes to school
  • Bike rack installation
  • Car pooling
  • Walk to School Day


Reflection Questions
  • Based on what you’ve learned, how could you reduce your gasoline usage in the future?
  • Will you see a gas station on your way home from school?  How many gas stations do you know of in your home town?
  • You’ve learned that we use mostly gasoline and diesel fuels for transportation today.  What are some difficulties we will face in replacing these fuels with more environmentally conscious alternatives?

Enrichment Extension Activities

Differentiation for Elementary School:
  • Build a model "city" in your classroom using toy cars and recycled materials such as painted cardboard boxes and toilet paper rolls. Include roads, houses, schools, parks, stores, gas stations, etc. How much gas is needed for a week of driving in your "city?" How about if you drive a hybrid or electric car?
  • As students design their alternative fuel, they can better visualize what type of infrastructure is needed for their model "city."
Differentiation for High School:
  • High school students can do in-depth research about one of the topics covered in this lesson for a class blog: internal combustion engine, history of cars, electric cars, biofuels, etc.
  • Have an in-class debate about traditional and alternative fuel sources. Each group can represent a different type of fuel or car company: gasoline, electric car, hybrid car, hydrogen car, biofuel, flexfuel. Students can debate about the pros and cons of each source of energy.

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