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Thayer Students Inspire Hybrid Race Car Competition

Gas-electric hybrid automotive technology could get a boost from a new annual competition organized by a team from Thayer School of Engineering.

Formula Hybrid™ invites teams of college and university students to design, build, and race formula race cars with gas-electric hybrid drive trains. The first annual Formula Hybrid competition will be held May 1 through 3 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon. In addition to Dartmouth, the schools registered are Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Illinois Institute of Technology, Colorado State University, Florida Institute of Technology, Yale University, McGill University, and Drexel University.

Hybrid race car
Dartmouth's hybrid race car was designed by Thayer School engineering students. (Photo courtesy Dartmouth Formula Racing)

The competition could lead to innovations in the field, says Formula Hybrid Director and Thayer School Research Engineer Douglas Fraser. "Students don't go in with preconceived notions. They sometimes launch off in directions that you wouldn't think would work, but they do."

Formula Hybrid is an offshoot of the Formula SAE® program, established in 1981 and sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers, which challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and compete with formula race cars. Teams from Thayer School have competed in the event since 1995 and have regularly placed in the top 20, out of a field of about 150 teams primarily representing much larger institutions, Fraser says. This year, for the second year in a row, Dartmouth will enter an ethanol-fueled car in the competition, which will be held May 16 through 20 at the Ford Michigan Proving Grounds in Romeo, Mich.

Formula Hybrid had its beginnings in 2003 when Dartmouth engineering students began researching their first hybrid race car in hopes of entering it in that year's Formula SAE competition, but the rules changed that year to disallow hybrid entries, thus inspiring the students to develop their own hybrid competition. Both the SAE and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers are sponsors of the program.

One guideline is fuel efficiency: A Formula Hybrid vehicle must use at least 15 percent less gasoline than a comparable "regular" formula race car operated under the same conditions, a goal many of the entries are expected to surpass, Fraser says. Another guideline involves recycling: Unlike the Formula SAE competition, Formula Hybrid teams are encouraged to incorporate used parts of other race cars rather than build from scratch.

The competition itself is a sort of educational hybrid, bringing together applications of mechanical and electrical engineering. "I never would have learned as much about electrical engineering had I not been involved in this project," says Formula Hybrid co-captain Dana Haffner '06 who is pursuing a master of engineering management at Thayer School. "I've taken classes in electrical engineering, but this is hands-on. There's just no comparison."

The experience is good preparation for the working world, in which different types of engineers regularly work together, Haffner says. Abigail Davidson '05, Thayer '06, the other co-captain, is also a master of engineering management candidate.

Unlike the "parallel hybrid" systems now used in most commercial vehicles, in which the gas engine and the electrical motor both are connected directly to the drive train, the vehicles being built by Dartmouth and many of the other teams competing in the event use a "series hybrid" system. In a series system, the gas engine generates electricity that goes into a storage device—in Dartmouth's case, an array of 88 bright blue "ultracapacitors," each one the size of a can of tennis balls—which powers the electric motor that operates the drive train. Haffner says the greatest challenge has been converting the electricity generated by the gas engine into a form that can be stored well by the capacitors and can serve the hugely variable electricity requirements of a high-performance vehicle, including the bursts of power needed for acceleration.

The May event will include a design competition as well as three driving events testing the vehicles' acceleration, handling, and endurance (how far and fast the vehicle goes on a certain amount of gasoline).

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By REBECCA BAILEY

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Last Updated: 12/17/08