Engineers shine in the sun

Engineers shine in the sun

Energy efficiency, rather than speed, was the priority of 1,500 Asian students who created cars competing on Malaysia's Formula One race track this summer

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Members of Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education (Tsing Yi) team, with their solar-powered car, Sophie.
Members of Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education (Tsing Yi) team, with their solar-powered car, Sophie.
Photo: Thomas Yau/SCMP
Every racing car driver that speeds around the Formula One Sepang International Circuit, in Malaysia, dreams of recording the fastest lap. Yet speed was of no concern to 1,500 students from 18 nations who competed at this summer's Shell Eco-marathon Asia challenge. Energy efficiency was the key to success for teams entering their models fuelled by petrol, diesel, hydrogen, battery or solar power.

The team from the Department of Engineering at Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education (Tsing Yi) finished as runners-up behind Singapore Polytechnic in the solar-powered event. The Hong Kong team, who were making their debut in the competition, entered a car nicknamed "Sophie".

To improve a vehicle's efficiency, it is important to reduce its weight. Sophie, built from carbon fibre, weighs only 60 kilograms, but the team still resorted to drastic measures - like using a hammer - when they built it.

"We'd added some leg support in the cockpit but thought the driver could do without it, so I pulled out a hammer and smashed it off," says Tsang Hiu-fung, the team's technical consultant, and a mechanical engineering graduate. "We love the car, but to try to win we were willing to do whatever it took."

A driver's weight was another factor. "Organisers required drivers to be at least 50 kilograms and we had to find skinny team members weighing 51kg to drive," says Peter Yip, one of the drivers who is studying for a higher diploma in electrical engineering.

Cars had to use the least amount of energy to complete an 11.2-kilometre journey within 23 minutes. "Going too fast was no help; we wanted the car out on the track as long as possible to absorb maximum sunlight," Tsang says. "We also checked the weather and drove when the sky was at its clearest."

Yip spent months playing driving simulation games using the Sepang track.

"I tried to familiarise myself and know every turn by heart," he says. "To actually drive on the real Formula One track was awesome."

Yip says Sophie is easy to control because it has no pedals; you drive it by hand. But the car has one major drawback: it doesn't have a reverse gear.

Sophie fact box

Passenger capacity: 1
Length: 3 metres
Width: 1.1 metres
Height: 0.9 metres
Weight: 60 kilograms
Average speed: 30km/h
Fuel system: 3 sq metre solar panel
Charging time: 35 minutes
Maximum distance travelled: 15 kilometres when fully charged, with no sunlight

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