Fuel cell powered car

On the grid for green

When you picture green cars, the last thing on your mind would be the typical 200mph racing car. But, as E&T discovers, several new racing series are shattering that conception.

As sports go, motor racing has got to be the least climate-friendly. Formula One (F1) cars emit 1,500g of CO2 per kilometre, adding up to over 50 tonnes of CO2 per car each season.

It is not a good example to be setting the myriad of fans who line race tracks and crowd around TVs to watch the drivers compete. The sport is under pressure to change and is starting to respond.

F1 has announced that its cars will become hybrid by 2013. A Dutch team has launched Formula Zero, a new race-class for vehicles powered by fuel cells releasing no CO2 at all; and the Formula Student race series has added a 1A class for cars running on alternative fuels. It seems motor-racing may yet shrug off its petrol-head image and hitch a ride with the green bandwagon.

Students at Imperial College London, UK are hoping to help shape the future of green motor-racing by building cars to race in the Formula Zero and Formula Student (1A) series. The idea of the university building a green car was first mooted in 2007, and during that summer a team of students put together a prototype.

IRG01 was a small go-kart powered by a 1.2kW Ballard Nexa fuel cell hybridised with a lithium polymer battery. Twin 48V DC motors provided torque and acceleration, while regenerative braking allowed kinetic energy to be recovered as the driver slowed to take a corner.

As a result of the project's success, the university launched Imperial Racing Green (IRG) as an official undergraduate teaching project the following academic year. "Our mission is to design and build zero-emissions vehicles to win races," says Ian Lawrence, student project manager for IRG.

An updated version of the prototype, IRG02, competed in the inaugural Formula Zero race in Rotterdam last year. Founded in 2003, this competition is the brainchild of Godert van Hardenbroek and Eeelco Rietveld. "At the time we were organising events for a network of designers involved in sustainability," van Hardenbroek says. "We organised an event called Sustainable Business Concepts, through which we were promoting systemic change.

Green racing fun

"One of us [then] got the opportunity to buy a Citroen SM classic racing car. This threw up a discussion as to whether it was wrong to be running a sustainable workshop and buying a car that throws out a lot of emissions. We pondered whether being sustainable equated to being Calvinistic and giving up all that was fun in life. We decided that it didn't and came up with the idea for zero-emissions motor racing."

IRG competed against other university teams from the US, the Netherlands, Spain and Belgium, taking third place. IRG02 was built around Formula Zero's prescribed fuel cell module, the 8kW Hydrogenics HyPM. Improvements to the kart made since IRG01 included improved control and data-logging systems, optimised chassis design, higher top speed and an increased driving range.

The Imperial car was the most reliable of the Formula Zero competitors, but couldn't match the high speed and endurance capabilities of the winning team, Greenchoice Forze from Delft University. "We have a good relationship with our other competitors but it went against us that the competition was organised on a knock-out basis," says Lawrence. "We have aimed to make our kart a third lighter and a third faster for the next race, which will take place in the UK in May at Brands Hatch."

The UK team were the only undergraduate team competing in Rotterdam. IRG has been set up specifically for third- and fourth-year students as part of their official coursework. Third-year students have to do a group project as part of their course - they each take a certain element of the car, perhaps the suspension or mounting the chassis, and choose to design or refine it. Students undertake a similar but more detailed project in their fourth year.

Over the coming year there will be 97 students from Imperial working on this and next season's cars. They are drawn from mechanical engineering, aeronautical engineering, electronics and electrical engineering, earth science engineering, materials, chemical engineering, bioengineering plus civil engineering disciplines.

At Imperial's central London campus, the team is working hard to improve its vehicle's performance ahead of the race. Four engineers are bent low over the car, which has been stripped down to little more than a frame and a tangle of wires and switches. At each corner is a fat, 30cm-high wheel, cushioned with smooth Dunlop rubber.

The 120x60cm metal box containing the fuel cell is sitting on a bench in the corner. The small black box housing the 400Mhz processor, the brains of the vehicle, has also been temporarily removed. "We've got the first test on Monday," explains Lawrence. "We think the car will be a bit oversteer heavy so we're working to correct that. In our experience, the winning teams are the ones that do less but test more."

Fuel cells work very differently to traditional combustion engines. Essentially, they act as large flow batteries that operate when hydrogen is supplied as fuel. A chemical reaction takes place between the hydrogen and atmospheric oxygen that converts chemical energy into electrical energy.

The Imperial team uses a proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell. The membrane is sandwiched between a positively charged electrode (cathode) and negatively charged electrode (anode). When the hydrogen arrives at the anode, it becomes ionised and breaks down into positive ions (hydrogen protons) and negative ions (electrons). Both are attracted to the cathode but only the protons can pass through the membrane. The electrons have to go around the PEM, and, as they do so, are directed through a circuit. This generates electricity that is harnessed to power the car. Only water is emitted as a by-product.

Formula student

Beside the dismantled IRG02 kart in IRG's workshop is the frame of a larger, Caterham-sized vehicle. Constructed of steel and shaped more like a traditional racing car, this is IRG03. It is another fuel-cell-powered vehicle built by the University's students, but this one has been designed to race in the Formula Student event.

Organised by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Formula Student is the biggest educational motorsport competition in Europe. Since its foundation in 1998, it has been challenging student engineers to design, build and compete as a team with their own single-seat racing car. Last year, some 95 teams took part, drawn from universities around the globe. The IET is one of the sponsors, giving awards for teams displaying the most effective and innovative uses of electronics.

Participants have to design and build a car that is fast, reliable and manufactured according to a budget. They have to demonstrate the car's prowess in acceleration, sprint, skid-pad, endurance and fuel economy.

Last year, Formula Student introduced the 1A class to open the competition to cars using alternative fuels and low-carbon technologies. This is the class that Imperial College intends to enter. IRG03 will be the first hydrogen fuel cell hybrid electric racing car in the event and is expected to be the first vehicle of its kind in the world.

The team is experimenting with new technologies in the vehicle, including an independently controlled four-wheel drive system, adjustable suspension with carbon fibre wishbones, advanced thermal management of the motors, and designing and building their own 12kW fuel cell and 100kW and 10kWh battery systems. Future development will focus on the vehicle's power electronics, its handling, and the fuel-cell system.

The IRG team has garnered help from several quarters to turn its green-car dreams into reality. The Royal College of Art, which is located close to the University and has a famous vehicle-design course, lent assistance in the form of the design for IRG03. Its computerised images depict a sleek, retro-look car rendered in silver and, of course, British racing-green livery.

When the Imperial team unveiled its plans for the car at the 2008 Formula Student event at Silverstone, it came second in Class 2, the class for vehicles still in their design phase.

The bulk of funding, meanwhile, has come from EnVision, a university-based programme designed to reinvigorate undergraduate teaching.

Backing from the motor industry

The project has also drawn support from the motor industry itself. ABSL, for example, is providing consulting to develop the battery packs for IRG03, with significant discount on the cells from Kokam America, while Johnson Matthey and NedStack worked together to provide fuel-cell stacks. Formula One sponsor McLaren has also formed an informal relationship with the team.

The question is, will Formula One, doyen of motor racing, take note of the changes happening at grassroots level in the sport and aim for zero-emissions itself? According to Nick Fry of Honda Racing, one of Formula Student's sponsors, it is likely Formula One will become a dinosaur unless it can contribute to technology that might help the environment.

However, Formula Zero's Godert van Hardenbroek believes Formula One is unlikely to switch from combustion engines to zero-emissions engines in the near future because its function as a marketing tool means change will only come once the market shifts. He believes it is more likely that Formula Zero will eventually take pole position in motorsports from Formula One. His plan is to scale up the series from kart size, to small car size and finally to Formula One size as the technology develops.

"Our ultimate aim is to create an entirely new pinnacle of motorsport," he says.

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