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Eva Hakansson and her electric motorcycle at a speedway

"It’s human nature. People have always wanted to go fast. Everyone wants to go faster,” says Eva Hakansson. Photo illustration: Wayne Armstrong

Even before she can remember, Eva Hakansson was building things.

“I was 2 years old when I got my first pair of scissors, because I was always taking everyone else’s to make things,” she says. “I’m told when I was 4 years old, I built a model nuclear power plant out of cardboard boxes and cans.”

But her real passion didn’t emerge until her later years … when she turned 6. She virtually grew up in her father’s workshop while he pounded metal on metal, grinding his own parts and crafting handmade racing motorcycles.

Fast-forward to 2010 and Hakansson — with a toolbox of self-taught engineering skills and a competitive and inquisitive  spirit — is pursuing a mechanical engineering master’s degree at the University of Denver’s School of Engineering and Computer Science. Between calculus and engineering classes, the 29-year-old Swedish native who speaks three languages and already has written a book on hybrid cars is hard at work chasing her dream of breaking the world speed record for electric motorcycles.

When she’s not studying, Hakansson and her husband, Bill Dubé, are holed up in their workshop, which is crammed with lathes and drills and welding torches and electrical components of every size. Scavenging the parts they need from eBay and Craigslist, they hunt down sponsors and travel the world in search of the next breakthrough technology.

And what they can’t scavenge, borrow or buy, they make.

Nothing is ever finished, she says. There’s no project that can’t be improved. The electric bikes she and her husband develop are in a constant state of change. In June, the couple’s ElectroCat became the first electric motorcycle to conquer the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, a grueling 12-mile, twisting, turning uphill motor race to the 14,100-foot summit of Pikes Peak outside Colorado Springs, Colo. Although she was sidelined for the run after a crash in testing that left her with a metal plate in her arm, Hakansson already is plotting her next mission: a run at the world speed record for electric motorcycles on her new custom cycle, a sleek rocket of a beast dubbed KillaJoule.

All about resources

Hakansson’s passion doesn’t end with motorcycles. An environmental scientist before she moved into racing and electric vehicles, Hakansson first delved into water management. She came to realize that anyone can have clean water if they have enough energy. Deserts that border oceans can desalinate the seas. Landlocked scorched plains can bloom if there’s the energy to transport water. Polluted rivers can be made clean with enough energy. The only thing that can’t be replaced is the energy itself.

Watch a video of Eva’s TEDxDU presentation.

There has to be a better way to build batteries, to make vehicles run more efficiently, to generate and deliver energy, Hakansson says. Conserve that one resource, find a better way to use energy, and the rest of the world’s problems fall into line.

A competitive spirit seems to be part of Hakansson’s DNA. As a child she was eager to learn from her parents, both engineers, and to keep up with her two older brothers, both now engineers as well. Her house in Nynäshamn, Sweden, was a hive of activity. Her brothers were the disassemblers, taking things apart to learn how they worked, while her father toiled in his shop crafting his racing cycles.

“When I went to high school, I was already very much into science because of my brothers. My oldest brother had won the school’s science competition. He traveled to Germany and London and got these awards. So I had to beat him,” she says. “I won the contest twice.”

While she was writing a book in 2007 (loosely translated from Swedish: Hybrid Cars, The Future is Now) she tracked down Dubé, a government research scientist who designed the world’s quickest electric-powered motorcycle. Dubé’s low-slung racing machine boasts 500 horsepower and hits 60 mph in less than a second.

“I just wanted to use a picture of his electric motorcycle,” she recalls. But they were kindred spirits, incessant tinkerers and designers, absorbed in what would become for both an extremely expensive “hobby.”

She finally met him in Los Angeles. Two years later they were married, and Hakansson found herself in a Denver suburb with a husband, a garage full of industrial metal-shaping equipment and a passion to go faster.

While she’s never shied away from getting her hands dirty, Hakansson also values the classroom.

“There is so much I want to do, but I realized I simply didn’t have enough knowledge, and in particular I didn’t have the engineering math I needed. Newton was able to figure out calculus on his own. Most of us can’t do that,” she says. “And if you don’t understand calculus, you’ll never be a good engineer. This is too expensive to do by trial and error; it has to be engineered.”

Keep it real

Of course, knowing her way around a drill press helps, too. At 5-foot-2, she looks at home in racing leathers, muscling one of her bikes in and out of a trailer, cranking on winches and lugging batteries. Hakansson says marrying the math and science with hands-on experience pays the biggest benefits. A square hole is easy to draw on an engine design with a computer-assisted design program. But in the metal shop, drilling a square, flat-bottomed hole is a daunting task. Engineers who understand how a concept translates from blueprints to bolts can best turn ideas into reality.

“What I like about DU is the overall attitude. They want people to succeed, they want you to do something,” Hakansson says. “My advice to students: ‘Do something.’ You can write every paper in the world, but if you go out and build something, future employers can see it. It’s something they can look at. You don’t just tell them you can do it, you show them.”

Rahmat Shoureshi, dean of the engineering school, says Hakansson’s passion for energy efficiency and innovation exemplifies what the University does best: finding solutions that serve the common good and advance the science the world needs.

“Eva’s innovative approach to problem solving is inspiring and emblematic of how we strive to educate our engineering students to tackle the great challenges facing our global community,” Shoureshi says. “Eva is a true pioneer in the field of electric vehicles and is a tremendous ambassador for our engineering program, where one of our key areas of focus is the development of optimized energy systems using renewable resources.”

Need for speed

The near-term barrier for Hakansson and her team lies on 30,000 acres of scorched, lifeless earth on the Bonneville Salt Flats, 120 miles west of Salt Lake City: the 176 mph speed record for an electric motorcycle. The next goal is 400 mph. And after that, Hakansson simply wants to see the world convert to electric vehicles and ditch the polluting, inefficient gasoline engine. She addresses all this in pragmatic fashion. People like powerful vehicles, she reasons. People don’t care what makes a vehicle powerful.

“The whole reason we do this is to promote electric-powered vehicles. The only way we can do that is to make something really fast and really powerful and really sexy. Something that will make your neighbors notice,” she says. “Everybody wants the fastest, the biggest. If people don’t believe electric vehicles are fun to drive, they won’t buy them. Guilt only sells so many electric cars.”

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