Moore’s Law – the observation that computing power doubles approximately every two years – can be applied in amended form to a whole range of products and technologies. The cars we drove 15 years ago look positively old-fashioned today, while a desktop PC that was the new century’s latest development (remember Windows 2000?) is now
Shell’s Eco-Marathon is a brilliant concept, bringing together teams of students from all over Europe who use their creativity and ingenuity to develop ultra-fuel-efficient vehicles. Vehicles are entered in one of seven fuel categories – petrol, diesel, biofuels, fuel made from natural gas (GTL), hydrogen, solar or electricity.
The challenge involves doing ten laps of a 1.6km circuit, at a minimum average speed of 25km/hr. The circuit replicates, as far as possible, urban conditions, with several vehicles on the track at the same time. At the end of the trial, the amount of energy used by each vehicle is measured and factored up to calculate the equivalent of a litre of petrol.
The team from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands is typical of the entrants. With sponsorship from Omron and a dozen other companies, Eco-Runner Team Delft is a group of undergraduates from a range of engineering and scientific disciplines who designed and built their own vehicle to compete in the Shell Eco-Marathon.
Their first attempt was with the petrol-driven Eco-Runner 1 in 2006-7, and the following year they built Eco-Runner 2, which was powered by a hydrogen fuel-cell. After a few years’ break, a new team was formed which designed and built Eco-Runner 3, another vehicle with a hydrogen fuel-cell. The first time it competed, in the 2011 Eco-Marathon, the fuel-cell broke down, but in 2012, the car achieved the equivalent of 1700km on a litre of petrol. For 2013, the team updated and upgraded Eco-Runner 3, and achieved the equivalent of 2914 km on a litre of fuel. This placed Eco-Runner Team Delft second in the class of 27, less than 100km behind the front runner.
The vehicle is cigar-shaped, with a carbon-fibre shell. The same material is used for the two front wheels and the single rear wheel, which both drives and steers. The drive is from a Mitsuba brushless DC motor which, purely by coincidence, uses a number of Omron parts. At just over two metres in length, the whole vehicle weighs less than 39kg, without the driver – both of whom were female students.
Eco-Runner Team Delft has an average age of 21. The team leader is 20-year old Frank Rijks, who is studying aeronautical engineering, and he’s already planning next year’s entry: “It will be an entirely new vehicle, and we’re already looking for new team members, particularly people with an interest in fuel cell technology, because that’s an area where we think we can make a big difference. The German Aerospace Laboratory is designing a new fuel cell, to make Eco-Runner 4 even more fuel efficient. But we also want to make next year’s entry more streamlined and lighter, and we want to improve our strategy for the actual test.”
Frank Rijks says that he hopes the co-operation with Omron – which provided relays and some other components for Eco-Runner 3 – will help in key areas for Eco-Runner 4: “With improved electronics, we can save weight, but we can also measure and use data to get a better strategy.” This test strategy can make a significant difference to the amount of energy used during the trials. The basic principle is to accelerate to slightly more than 25 km/hr, then allow the momentum to carry the vehicle along until the speed drops a little below the required average. The ideal, of course, is to do the ten laps at exactly 25km/hr – but that requires data to be acquired and assessed instantaneously, to enable speedy decisions by the driver.
There are ten people in Eco-Runner Team Delft, six of them full-time – having put their studies on hold for the moment. Frank Rijks is one of the full-time members, and he says they all learn a lot from being involved in the project: “We get to meet and work with people from all the disciplines at the University. We have to co-operate, just as we would in a real company, and we use the knowledge from our studies in a practical sense.”
The target for next year is to achieve 5000 km on the energy equivalent of a litre of petrol. Given their achievements in 2013, you wouldn’t bet against them achieving their target!