x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A clean set of wheels

In a large and slightly cluttered workshop that smells of metal and rubber, a group of engineering students crouch down and start manhandling a sleek white car.

In a large and slightly cluttered workshop that smells of metal and rubber, a group of engineering students crouch down and start manhandling a sleek white car. One person grabs the handlebars - it doesn't have a steering wheel - and attempts to get the vehicle pointing outside. The cockpit he reaches into is more racing car than road-going saloon, with a cramped seat and slightly crude-looking bits of metalwork that surround the driver. Two other men simply shove the front end to one side and the machine is finally pointing at the open door. After a bit more pushing, the car is wheeled outside and gleams in the bright late-morning sunshine, looking much more in its element. No wonder. This is the Siemens Sunchaser, thought to be the first solar-powered car made from scratch by students in the Middle East. More than a dozen students at the American University of Sharjah's School of Engineering have been involved in creating the vehicle over the past year and a half.

"It's the first time it's been done in the region," says Dr Ameen el Sinawi, an AUS associate professor of mechanical engineering and the project supervisor. "The students are very excited about it as we started this project from zero. We didn't buy anything at the beginning - we had to design it from scratch." Among the students who have worked on the car is Abdulaziz Sarhan, 22, an Emirati from Sharjah who is in the fourth year of a mechanical engineering degree.

"We faced some problems because it was the first [solar-powered] car in the region made by students," he says. "The focus was on the shape of the body, the braking system, the steering system and the suspension system." Among the problems the team encountered was finding the solar panels, although the students eventually sourced two types, large and small, from different suppliers. A boatbuilder then constructed the vehicle to the students' blueprints.

The car has three batteries that provide the energy for two motors, which together generate three-brake horsepower. This might not sound like much, but they are enough to power the Sunchaser to speeds of up to 35kph. This is thanks to the weight being just 350kg, although making the vehicle this light was not easy. Although panels were crafted from aluminium and carbon fibre, when the car had four wheels, it still weighed too much. So heavy was it, in fact, that Dr el Sinawi said he and the students "almost gave up".

"We started with four tyres, but when we did that, we had to have a differential and a gearbox," he said. "That added a lot of weight." With just one wheel at the back, though, the car is 70kg lighter and has a much improved power-to-weight ratio. The batteries take about four hours to charge fully, and afterwards the car can run for about the same length of time. The Siemens-sponsored car, which cost about Dh250,000 to build, could be improved by the addition of more motors, with Dr el Sinawi saying its top speed could be doubled.

It is just one of several cutting-edge cars, many with the same eco-friendly theme as the Sunchaser, that have been made by AUS's inventive mechanical engineering students. Nearby in the workshop sits an aggressive-looking kart with a fuel supply and engine that looks as overdone as that found on the most souped-up drag racer. Adding to the slightly inelegant look are two bulky canisters of natural gas attached to the left of the driver seat.

While it might not be pretty, the kart is fast. This pint-sized speed machine can tear across the tarmac at 100kph thanks to the addition of a turbocharger from a truck engine. "But it's dangerous because of the gas," says Dr el Sinawi. "We did run it, but not any more because we were worried about the safety of our students." The kart could run on conventional petrol, but it was converted to natural gas as part of the department's efforts to explore alternative fuel sources.

Ehab Zourob, 22, a Palestinian in the fourth year of a mechanical engineering degree, and one of five students who helped to produce the vehicle, said there were various challenges to make the kart run to its maximum. "At the beginning, the air wasn't swirling in the combustion chamber, so we changed the inlet so the air swirled and it worked," he says. AUS students have also produced a car that runs on air. Yes, air. There are compressed air canisters attached to the rear of the tiny bright red vehicle, which weighs 170kg and can travel at 40kph.

"We just charge these cylinders with air and run it for a couple of hours," says Dr el Sinawi. "The compressed air car is a concept that's starting to emerge." One of the latest projects has not yet turned a wheel, but its prospects are looking bright. A team of six students is developing a fuel cell source of power that, so far, has been attached only to a few light bulbs, but in time, will be connected to a four-wheeler.

Hydrogen is fed into the membrane of the fuel cell and becomes charged, releasing electrons that run into attached wires. "The hydrogen binds with oxygen in the air and turns into water," says Dr el Sinawi. "It's totally green. This is the way of the future. It's very economical and it produces a lot of power. BMW, General Motors and Toyota use it." Sanjoy Noronha, 22, another fourth-year mechanical engineering student, believes it is the first time this technology has been implemented in the Gulf.

"Most of this is done in Europe and the United States," he says. The fuel cell consists of a membrane of a polymer called nafion, sandwiched between layers of steel and aluminium. The membrane sheets are not cheap, costing about Dh2,000 for three. To improve the power output, the students have developed a more sophisticated flow system for the hydrogen. The design, says Dr el Sinawi, is unique. Normally, hydrogen enters in one direction and leaves in one direction, but on the AUS fuel cell system, it enters from two sides and leaves in two directions also.

So far, the fuel cell generates 300 watts, but the students are confident they can increase this to 800 watts. All the students say creating the vehicles has allowed them to put into practice what they have learnt in the lecture theatre. "We have applied what we studied, but in a practical way," says Mr Sarhan. "Also, we learnt how to work in teams and how to manage ourselves." These are experiences likely to come in useful as the students embark on careers as professional mechanical engineers.

"It can be frustrating," says Mr Noronha. "You always come across glitches, but we have group meetings and we work with our advisers to trouble shoot." As well as technical hurdles, the students are also faced with financial obstacles. While sponsorship meant the solar-powered car was a bigger budget project, for most vehicles the costs have been kept down to about Dh15,000 or Dh16,000. "Our students do a lot of good work, but sometimes the lack of funds stops us from achieving what we could achieve," says Dr el Sinawi.

He would be pleased if sponsors came forward to pay for future projects, saying that the work could encourage the use of greener technologies. "In the Gulf region, few people think about the environment," he says. "The awareness is growing, but if people are benefiting from the gas prices, they don't think about small cars that produce less pollution." dbardsley@thenational.ae