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Student Grand Prix showcases green engines

July 13, 2007 By Katharine Sanderson This article courtesy of Nature News.

Alternative fuels push for entry to UK speed trials.

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Undergraduate engineers will be racing their cars this weekend at Silverstone — home of the British Grand Prix — in the tenth Formula Student competition.

Besides approximately 100 petrol-powered competitors, the event will include three racing cars powered by alternative fuels will appear — one hybrid, one with a fuel cell, and one that runs on hydrogen. But safety concerns will prevent them from lining up on the starting grid.

"For technologies that nobody has run before everything presents a new risk," says Jon Hilton, chief judge, and managing partner of Flybrid Systems, which is developing kinetic-energy recovery systems for racing cars.

Safety marshals require specific training to deal with different cars. This poses a problem if an event has several types of car.

But the vehicles will take part in some events, such as the sprint, where only one car is on the track. Their times won't be judged against the conventional cars, but all the teams think they would have a good chance if they were.

Quick off the mark

The car built by the Racing Green team from Imperial College London, for example, can go from 0-60 m.p.h. in 4 seconds. That's "ferociously quick", says team member Ralph Clague.

The car runs on a combination of a hydrogen fuel cell and a battery. "Electric motors have much better torque characteristics; you can get off the line quicker," says Clague. He is disappointed not to be competing — the car would have a good chance of winning, he says.

The Silverstone event is Racing Green's first public outing. The team's sights are set on competing in the Formula Zero competition being organized by a small company from the Netherlands, which wants to hold a zero-emissions race next year.

Oxford Brookes University, meanwhile, is unveiling a hybrid car with a 250 c.c single-cylinder engine and an electric motor. The motor recharges its capacitors by becoming a generator when the car brakes, the same technology used in hybrids such as the Toyota Prius.

"Ours is the closest to a conventional car," says Craig Dawson, who is part of the Oxford Brookes team. "I'm certain we're going to be competitive," adds team leader Juan Navarro.

Winning design

The third car, developed at the University of Hertfordshire, uses an adapted internal combustion engine powered by hydrogen. This kind of technology is not likely to be viable in the long term, says Clague, but it shows that a standard engine can be adjusted to run on hydrogen.

The car's hydrogen will come from manure. John Goddard, one of the Hertfordshire team, says they hope their power output will match that of a petrol engine.

"We're keen to see how quick they go," says Hilton. In the future, he says, these cars might be able to compete along with the gas-guzzlers. "We would like to see these technologies coming back to compete in a full competition," he says.

The event, organized by the UK Institute of Mechanical Engineers, includes prizes for speed, fuel efficiency and endurance. The single-seater cars are also judged on the design and cost.

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