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How Formula One racing is becoming more environmentally friendly

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

The world's most advanced auto sport is finally becoming more environmentally friendly, by introducing new rules this year to make Formula One cars more fuel efficient and cleaner. It's a big move for racing technology, but there is still a long way to go.

Formula One, which begins its season in Australia this weekend, is the ultimate in power and speed, with high-powered cars capable of accelerating from zero to 160 km/hr and back to zero in less than 10 seconds. Impressive - but huge amounts of fuel are burned in the process.

Now, FIA, the governing body for the sport, has introduced new rules that restrict the cars to 1.6 litre engines, which are the size powering the average small car; and they are allowed only 100 kg of fuel for the entire 305 km race. That means the cars have to be 30 per cent more efficient than earlier versions.

To make these cars go as fast as their V8-powered predecessors, engineers are using hybrid technology and other energy recovery systems to get the most out of every litre of fuel. It's a replay of the early 1970s, when gas shortages and skyrocketing prices made large gas-guzzling North American cars, with big V8 engines, unpopular. The lesson was learned back then that smaller is better. It's about time Formula One racing caught up to the new reality.
 
But while hybrid electric systems, re-generative braking and even heat recovery from the exhaust will make the racing cars much more efficient while still maintaining power, this whole effort underlines how far we have gone to compensate for the basic inefficiencies of the internal combustion engine. Nicholas Otto's invention has been powering factories and vehicles for more than 150 years. It has been made smaller, more powerful, tweaked and tuned for incredible performance, but fundamentally, it will always be inefficient.

An average small car with a 1.6 litre engine is about 20 per cent efficient when running at a constant speed on the highway... with no wind... and no hills... and only one person in the car. That means that out of all the energy available in the gasoline, only 20 per cent is turning the wheels. Eighty percent of the energy is thrown away, mostly as waste heat. Another way to look at it is this: if it costs $40.00 to fill up that car, you are only using $8.00 to move the vehicle. You might as well pour $32.00 on the ground, because you're not using that gas.

So, engineers can continue to try and squeeze a little more out of this old and inherently inefficient technology, but it's really time to retire the internal combustion engine to museums and move on to something better.
 
That something is a fully electric race car, with just as much power, no emissions and a motor that is more than 80 per cent efficient, with only one moving part. The new Spark-Renault SRT 01E is one example of things to come.

To its credit, FIA has introduced a new electric racing series that is designed to push the technology into the next century. The electric racers have similar body styles, but they are not as powerful or as fast as their combustion counterparts. But they could be. The biggest challenge lies not in the electric motors; they can put out copious amounts of torque and have actually been around longer than combustion engines. It all comes down to the batteries. They still can't carry as much energy in as small a package as a tank of gasoline.

Lithium ion batteries, the type in laptop computers, are far superior to the lead acid batteries used to start cars, but they are expensive, heavy, made of rare earth materials, take a long time to charge and get very hot when used strenuously. Critics of electric cars say it's like having a one-litre gas tank that takes four hours to fill.
 
So, as I've said before, there's a challenge for all young engineers out there: design a container that is the same size and weight as a tank of gasoline, containing the same amount of energy, but it's electrical. Oh, and you need to fill it in about five minutes. Such a container does not exist.

Race tracks are also research laboratories where new technology is put to the ultimate test. If that technology, such as ABS braking or traction control, survives the rigours of a race, it can make it into a family car. Let's hope that the Formula One series can provide a fast track to truly practical electric vehicles.

(Listen to our recent Quirks feature on the latest research to make a better battery.)