Racing To Save The Earth

Eco-cars set to zoom into the racing circuit

Issue: Sep 2010

Eco-friendly race cars
Posing next to an eco-friendly race car set to burn the tracks in the September G1 race are these Crescent Girls' School girls who will be racing soap box cars in another race in the same event
Photo credit: Singapore Environment Council

In an era where being green is not only the politically correct thing to do but also the socially responsible one, even the racing community is jumping onto the bandwagon. Race cars are known for their speed. By that measure alone, fuel-efficiency and emission-control are not top on their list. But in recent years, as the green movement gained momentum, even the motoring industry has been racing to develop the ultimate eco-race car – fast enough for the motor-race circuit, safe enough for the earth.

Ahead in the Green Race

As with many things, Singapore is in the forefront of the race to save the earth via eco-friendly race cars. During the F1 season this September, Singapore will be giving the regular racing scene a run for its money with its own green race. The G1 or Singapore Green One will see eco-cars powered by nothing but gravity. Drivers will build their cars from scratch with a kit comprising recycled plastic and wood. These cars will then careen from the top of a ramp down a 100-metre track. The event is inspired by soapbox races popular in the US and organised by the Singapore Environment Council. To be held on September 19, the weekend before the F1 race, the race will take place on Turn 17 and 18 of the F1 race circuit.

“Singapore G1 aims to raise awareness of the green technology available, that alternative energy options are commercially viable, and to encourage the use of cleaner and more cost-effective modes of transportation like public transport. At the same time, Singapore G1 also promotes simple lifestyle changes like walking, cycling or skating,” said the spokesperson from Singapore Environment Council.

Fuelling the Eco Movement

Another way to go green is in the use of an alternative fuel source that would contribute to the reduction of global warming. Enter the biofuel. In the past, there were concerns that biodiesel could not possibly provide enough power and energy required of a competitive race car. In 2008, Audi put that fear to rest when its team did extremely well during the Le Mans series with a car that ran on biodiesel. Held annually since 1923, the Le Mans is the world's oldest sports car race in endurance racing.

Warwick University project
Powered by chocolate, steered by carrot, this Warwick University project is the world's first F3 racer
Photo credit: Warwick University

Biodiesel fuel is created using bio mass and can be used without modifications to a car. It is less flammable than gasoline, traditional diesel fuel or even ethanol, which is another form of biofuel. Damaging carbon emissions, sulphur emissions and other greenhouse gases are lowered by up to 90% and biodiesel is non-toxic to life so accidental spillage will cause no damage. In addition, biodiesel is biodegradable and therefore safer to handle and cleaner to burn.

With an eye on the future, a group of British scientists at Warwick University last year took the biodiesel to another level by introducing a car that runs on chocolate waste and vegetable oil. Even the engine lubricant uses plant oil. Though the car is currently too slow to be race-ready, it can be driven and represents a breakthrough of sorts in automotive environmentalism.

This year, Volkswagen introduced bio-CNG-powered (compressed natural gasses) vehicles to the motorsport scene. The Bio-CNG Scirocco Cup version is fitted with a two-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged engine that delivers up to 199kW (270hp). These cars can reduce carbon dioxide emissions of up to 80%.

Tech Enhancement Aiding the Green Cause

Of course there are other ways to power a car. Electricity and solar power have been some of the options explored. But on this front, technological advances have created breakthroughs like never before. Early this year, Porsche developed an eco-friendly race car that runs on stored energy. A flywheel generator that can spin up to 40,000 rpm is mounted in its passenger seat. This generator stores energy each time the vehicle brakes. With this technology, the driver can release a jolt of 160hp six to eight seconds afterwards by tapping a button on the steering wheel. The Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid is faster and more economical. A driver can get an extra 15 miles between pit stops, which puts him at an advantage when the car stops for fuel every 100 to 150 miles.

Eco-friendly Inside Out

What is in an eco-car is as important as what is outside. Another way race cars have gone green is also by using eco-friendly materials. The same British scientist who used chocolate waste to power their eco-car also made the steering wheel from carrot fibre and the seats out of flax fibre and soybean oil.

Ben Wood
This one-seater Eco One created by a researcher and student from Warwick University costs £20,000
Photo credit: Warwick University

In 2007, the Eco One project introduced a car that uses natural, renewable materials for its tyres, bodywork, brake pads, lubricants and fuel. Steel and aluminium that can be easily and efficiently recycled are used for the chassis. The car was designed by a researcher at Warwick University (who later built the chocolate-powered car) and built by a student there over two months. All this was done without compromising on performance. The car has a power-to-weight ratio of 540bph/tonne, can go from 0 to 62mph in under four seconds and has a top speed in excess of 140mph.

It may be a while before truly eco-friendly race cars make it to the F1 track but the first tentative steps have been taken to put a green spin to the race scene. And that is a great flag-off for the green movement.

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