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A Need for Speed

A Need for SpeedA group of engineering students work together on the creation of a fully operational electric Formula 1-style race car.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.20.08] Mechanical engineering major, Matt Liberatore, (E'09), got into engineering at the bookstore, but not because he thumbed through the required reading for freshman engineers.

"I picked up a copy of this magazine called Grassroots Motor Sports. The cover said 'Go Racing,'" says Liberatore. "I thought, 'Wow, if I do engineering, I could do this.'" Since then, Liberatore has been racing along in his fellow engineers toward the ultimate goal of having a fully operational electric Formula 1-style race car.

Liberatore is the president of the Tufts Hybrid Racing club team that comprises 14 undergraduate and graduate engineers from electrical, mechanical and computer engineering backgrounds. The team mission is to compete with an all-electric racer in the 2009 Formula Hybrid Competition hosted by Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering. The competition challenge is to design, build and compete an open-wheel, single-seat racecar, which emphasizes drive-train innovation and fuel efficiency.

The team got off the ground with some seed money provided by Liberatore's parents and a $10,000 donation from Peter Wittich, (E'83), who has supported alternative energy initiatives at the School of Engineering. The team also secured donations from the School of Engineering, Interstate Asphalt and Alltrax, which provided the electronics to program the engine's response.

However, getting all the pieces together has been tricky, says Liberatore. Just before the turn of the year, Liberatore and Belmont went to pick up the race-car chassis they had purchased from the University of New Hampshire. Throughout the winter, the team met for welding-safety and training meetings to strengthen the chassis in anticipation of the 200-pound motor which arrived mid-March. With the May deadline looming, the team pulled into the pit to reassess.

Mechanical engineers Kate Siegel, Matt Liberatore and Dana Monnier look over the frame of the Formula 1-style race car they are modifying to compete in the Formula Hybrid competition in 2009.

It's about the journey

Though this year's competition may have stalled out, the learning is motoring along. Rising senior Kate Siegel has been researching potential hybrid drive systems as part of an independent study project. Discussions in Bray Lab and on the team's Google groups site have been rampant, including ideas about the transmission, the electronic control system, and incorporation of off-the-shelf components.

Steve Daum, SAE Collegiate Programs Manager, says the Formula Hybrid competition is more about the process than the product for these students.

"What they're building is less important than the fact that they're coming [to the competition] to learn how to improve their engineering skills and more importantly their engineering program management skills," says Daum.

Read more on the School of Engineering's other racing projects in"The Making of a Methanol Mini-Racer"

Joseph Helble, dean of Thayer School of Engineering, agreed that learning is paramount to the project and that the interdisciplinary opportunities make the competition unique.

"That's how innovation happens, bringing in people from different perspectives to work toward a shared goal on a particular problem," Helble said during his introduction at the inaugural competition in 2007.

"Formula Hybrid requires that students of both mechanical and electrical engineering work closely together to produce a competitive vehicle," says Wynne Washburn, deputy director of the Formula Hybrid Project at the Thayer School of Engineering. "On many university campuses, these departments are physically-and psychologically-remote from one another."

Going for Green

Apart from side benefits of learning about project management and working with an interdisciplinary team, the project has gotten Liberatore interested in renewable energy.

"The major crisis of my generation is what we're going to do about energy," he says. "Racing improves the breed-it's the drive of performance to squeeze the most out of the technology. So, if that technology could then be used elsewhere, that's something the Tufts team could contribute."

Washburn said that hybrid technologies resulting as a byproduct of the learning-aspect of the Formula Hybrid competition may be important as well.

"We are looking forward to seeing what the student teams create in terms of novel hybrid architectures," says Washburn. "This will undoubtedly be beneficial to industry and the public [as] these new systems are developed."

Gentlemen, start your engines

When the Tufts team does enter next year, the competition will be stiffer. This year, 16 teams entered the competition--up from six teams in the competition's first year--including two international teams from Russia and Taiwan. Next year, Washburn says she predicts that the number of teams will double.

If the 2009 competition runs smoothly for the all-electric car, the Tufts Hybrid Racing Team will compete in 2010 with gas-electric technologies. And so far, lead engineer Belmont says the team is "on track to have the drive system running by the end of the school year and the car completed by the end of the calendar year." That will put the rising engineering underclassmen in pole position to transition their electric car to a true electric-gasoline hybrid.

Profile by Julia C. Keller is Communications Specialist at Tufts School of Engineering

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