AUB mechanical engineering students successfully beat the odds, including a last-minute broken front tire axle, finishing 13 among the 44 participants of their prototype gasoline category, at the Asia Shell Eco-Marathon 2014 which took place in Manila, Philippines February 6 -9, 2014.
Shell Eco-marathon challenges student teams from around the world to design, build, and test energy-efficient vehicles. With annual events first in the Americas, then Europe and Asia, the winners are the teams whose vehicles go the farthest using the least amount of energy. The events spark debate about the future of mobility and inspire young engineers to push the boundaries of fuel efficiency.
“This is a perfect example of our students’ ingenuity, self-reliance, and problem-solving capabilities, not only theoretically in the classroom, but in real life and in any hostile environment as well,” said Kamel Ghali, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “This shows that they are ready to tackle any situation in their workplace and in real life after graduation.”
The car was originally a final year project for Spring 2012 and the AUB team back then participated in the Asia Shell Eco-Marathon (SEM) in Malaysia and entirely hand-built the unit except for the Honda engine they placed in the vehicle. That car was preserved, and a new team was formed to improve the car and participate once again in Asia SEM 2013. They designed and built a new body for the car, changed the steering system; installed a rear camera and a speed encode; and enhanced the steering wheel for the driver’s comfort; but the event was cancelled due to the poor air quality in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where the marathon was scheduled to take place.
This year’s team was composed of Kinda Hatoum (team leader); Gacia Kekejian (driver); Rayya Karaa (reserve driver); and Farah Cheaib, Joe El Asmar, Georgio Haddad and Johnny Khalil, with the supervision of Ghali and Ghassan Deeb, manager of the mechanical engineering labs, who constituted the team’s technical group.
“This year, with the competition being in February instead of June, there was less time to work on the car, so we decided to make whatever changes we could on the existing car to improve it and fix the several systems that were facing problems,” said Karaa. “The team worked very well together, and we coordinated our tasks and times at AUB to do the most we could and the project was a good experience, offering the hands-on experience that most courses lack.”
Hatoum recounted how it was hard work to refit a car which wasn’t built by her team and with no original blueprint or diagrams. But the technical members of the team set their minds on the project.
The changes and fixes in the car included fuel inlet to the carburetor, frontal brakes, bearings and tires. Add to that the fact that they had to arrange the entire circuitry in the car, while they were studying for their regular courses. Due to lack of funds, however, the engine wasn’t changed, which would have greatly improved the car’s mileage.
In Manila, due to shipping and other factors, the frontal brakes failed and had to be changed. The carburetor leaked gasoline and had to be fixed. The seat-belt position and some edges of the body didn’t meet the inspectors’ standards, so had to be modified in order for the design to comply.
Deeb explained how the students, while they would usually complain about attending early morning classes at 8:00 am in Beirut, were up at the crack of dawn to attend the 6:00 am briefing and stayed up past midnight to fix the bugs and tune up the car in Manila.
After passing safety and technical inspection and during the first run on the track, a problem in the steering occurred, and the left frontal wheel axle broke.
“At this stage the team members had reached their limit and everyone wanted to call it quits, saying that they had done their best and given it all they had,” explained Deeb. “But Gacia persisted and insisted on continuing the struggle, which revitalized the others, and thus the whole team went out into Manila in search of a shop to make a new axle within the 24 hours that remained to be qualified.”
In order to qualify, race participants had to complete a 12 km stretch of 10 laps within a time limit of 24 minutes. And half of the 126 participating teams did not complete a qualifying run. The AUB car achieved a very modest 60 km per 1 liter of fuel, while the top achiever got 1,700 km per 1 liter of fuel.
“Drivers are allowed to turn off their engines during the race but we couldn’t do that with our car since we used a single gear, clutch-less model engine,” explained Ghali.
The whole endeavor had a budget of about $50,000, which was co-funded by AUB, the mechanical engineering department and Shell. “We had a difference of about $384,000 in funding as compared to the other teams,” said Haddad. “So if any potential sponsor is reading this, please contact us.”