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Issue One 2014 - Issue #20

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Swinburne is racing into the future with solar electric sports car

Story by Fiona Killman

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A sports car designed to be the toughest on the road, while helping the environment and showcasing the benefits of solar power, is well on its way to reality. Swinburne senior lecturer, Dr Clint Steele, and a team of engineering students are working with Aurora Vehicle Association and SolarX Corporation to develop a solar-electric hybrid clean energy vehicle. The street-legal sports car will be powered by solar and electric (battery) energy, eliminating the reliance on fossil fuel and making it a true zero-emissions vehicle.

Aurora, a not-for-profit Melbourne-based group, has been developing solar racers for decades and competes in high-profile events including the World Solar Challenge. The company was keen to develop a commercially viable street-legal two-seater sports car to demonstrate the capabilities of solar power, and approached Swinburne to use the talent of the undergraduate engineering students.

Aurora’s Andris Samsons says they saw the opportunity to “shift the public’s paradigm to what a truly zero emissions electric vehicle could be: desirable, capable and fun”.

Realising a concept

Former Aurora chairman, David Fewchuk, floated the initial idea in 2008, calling for the development of a new type of truly zero-emissions vehicle using Australian technology. Two years later Aurora lead designer Ali Jafari completed the first design concept and named it Aurora Solaris; and in 2012 Aurora and Swinburne officially partnered to design a proof-of-concept prototype.

Aurora’s role in the project includes providing expertise in the areas of automotive exterior and interior styling, aerospace engineering, electrical engineering, automotive engineering, vehicle dynamics, vehicle testing and public and educational outreach.

“Swinburne is providing the mechanical (engineering) grunt, while Aurora provides the expertise and wisdom,” says Dr Steele. “Engineering students are really good at applying theory, while Aurora knows what we need to keep an eye on.”

Track record

Swinburne has been involved in electric vehicle research for some years, and hosts the Alternative Technology Association’s Melbourne Electric Vehicle Interest Group.

Dr Steele says the project is progressing well mechanically with the basic concept and design.

“It’s a two-seater roadster with hub motors built into the rear wheels, which is the latest CSIRO/Marand technology,” he says. “It’s unique in that we have got solar panels and batteries. The batteries do the grunt work and the solar panels top them up. The car will be able to drive at any speed limit in Australia. As long as the sun is shining the car can keep going.

“We don’t want people to buy solar just because it is environmentally friendly. It has to have the ability to make drivers completely independent. You don’t need to rely on service stations. The car will just keep on going. It will be the toughest car on the road.”

He says the challenges, associated with moving from a solar concept to producing a car that is commercially viable, are in the refinement stages. “We need to make the car look good and still have the aerodynamics that we require. This is where the product design engineering students come in.

“Other challenges have included making the car strong enough and light enough by design and material selection. We are really pushing the envelope when it comes to aerodynamics and aesthetics.”

Towards a commercial reality

In September 2013 the project’s commercial arm was set up, working alongside the vehicle development experience of Aurora and the engineering analysis expertise of Swinburne.

Barry Nguyen, the founding chief executive officer of SolarX Corporation, says it is a multi-disciplinary engineering start-up that strives to be the world’s leading private organisation advocating electric vehicles as a practical mode of transportation. “The SolarX idea stemmed from my early childhood passion for cars and technology,” says Nguyen.

Nguyen says Swinburne brings “world-class ingenuity, knowledge and credibility” to the project. “This start-up has international potential. It can put Swinburne on the map,” he says.

“There are many countries around the world with unresolved pollution problems, crying out for innovative solutions. SolarX will prove that zero- emission cars are a realistic mode of sustainable transportation, reducing the burden on the environment.

“The project is about 80 per cent done in terms of concept. We are now raising money to build the prototype. Hopefully we can have this done by mid to end of 2014.”

The engineering team working on the project have been given shares in SolarX Corporation as a reward for their efforts. Fourth-year mechanical engineering student Joe Lapadula says the project has confirmed his love of engineering.

“It is a very interesting concept for a fully road-legal solar car and working through some of the problems associated with a car such as this has been really challenging,” he says.

While the short-term goals are to raise money for the prototype, the returns are expected to come from intellectual property developed during design and production of the vehicle.

“As we are doing this we are facing challenges for which solutions have not yet existed,” Dr Steele says. “Intellectual property that we develop in these circumstances has the potential to be applied in other areas.”

Nguyen says while the car will be available for limited production, it will also serve as a public platform to showcase technologies for potential licensing to other companies. He says one of the key challenges is convincing financial investors that SolarX Corporation has the passion, knowledge, skills and experience to make this idea a reality.

“We are going against the odds. In general, Australia is conservative in terms of investing in start-ups, particularly in local manufacturing. The local labour force is also relatively expensive, which creates challenges in sustaining a global competitive advantage. We need to convince investors that we have the brains here and the engine to innovate.”

Swinburne students are working with industry on two more ground-breaking projects

An electric scooter project, Carg02, started in 2012 for undergraduate mechanical engineering and product design engineering students. eRider All Electric Transportation director Eric Dressler says Swinburne approached him to develop a “cargo scooter like no other scooter that was available today”.

The vehicle breaks established rules of scooter design, with the cargo stored in the middle section, electric motors in the rear wheels and batteries in the middle of the frame for even weight distribution.

“It’s a multipurpose machine, which could be used for courier delivery boxes, or pizza boxes,” says Dressler. “We have customers asking for scooters that can handle bigger boxes. Our biggest is 150 litres. The Carg02 could take over 200 litres. It should definitely be a popular model once it is completed.”

With the prototype now complete, the vehicle is currently being tested against eRider’s current range of scooters.

Swinburne has also been working with Aerochute International on an electric-powered parachute for the past six months. The design is almost complete and work will soon start on the prototype. “We wanted to design and manufacture a powered parachute that is virtually silent and makes it environmentally friendly without exhaust emissions,” says Aerochute aerospace engineer Rex Lee. “It will be the first Australian-made electric-powered

The model will be quieter compared to petrol powered machines on the market and more acceptable in populated areas. Lee says the industry will benefit with a need to increase local suppliers on new or additional components required for the parachute.

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