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Driving sustainability forward
Nick Walsh Atkins is combining his design skills with a passion for manufacturing. He and a team of fellow students are building an energy-efficient car, designed to break new ground with sustainable materials.
In a university basement in the heart of England, Nick Walsh Atkins is attaching spokes on a wheel for a very unusual car – made almost entirely from wood. Soon it will be competing at Shell Eco-marathon in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in a bid to drive as far as possible on the least energy.
“The great thing about the competition is the freedom you have, which encourages innovation,” says Nick. “We wanted to show what can be achieved in sustainable design.”
His team, from Aston University, UK, has considered sustainability at every step, from production to use. Most of the car is made of wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, with body panels made from plant fibres and resin.
Using sheets of wood minimises waste and allows the structure to be flat-packed, saving space to make delivery more efficient. Balsa wood sandwiched between two thin strips of plywood keeps the design strong yet light. A suspension system is rare among entrants, since it requires complex engineering and adds bulk. But Aston University opted to include a wooden one, helping protect engine parts from the bumpy Rotterdam road.
Nick and his colleagues opted to enter the competition’s UrbanConcept class, which requires some everyday car features such as luggage space. The team has added other relative luxuries, such as a passenger seat.
They have chosen to power the car with a hydrogen fuel cell. This converts hydrogen into electricity with no emissions except water.
Dr Christian McLening, a design lecturer who oversees the team, says the experience of designing and building a car helps students acquire valuable skills that they can take into their future careers. Two former team members, for example, now work at Jaguar Land Rover, a major car manufacturer.
“Students get practical experience and learn to work together as a team,” he says “This is really important to employers.”
Last year’s Aston University team won an Eco-design award in the competition for pushing the boundaries of sustainable design. But they only managed one lap of the track in Rotterdam before a problem with their fuel cell forced them from the race. This time they are determined to succeed.
“There have been ups and downs,” says Nick. “But I’m feeling confident!”
|Team name:||Aston University|
|Energy type:||Hydrogen fuel cell|
|Unique car features:||Balsa and birchwood structure, suspension system, can be flat-packed, bodyshell parts made with plant fibres and bio-epoxy|
|Years in the competition:||4|
Who's on the team?
Joe Greenfield has taken on the tough challenge of designing, building and racing on wooden wheels. He has used specialist computer programmes to simulate the stresses on the wheel. Applying innovation, Joe has used his own manufacturing process to build lightweight wooden wheels containing sustainable laser-cut wooden parts.
With specialist knowledge in the very new and advanced area of hydrogen fuel cell technology, Jake Willcocks is invaluable. The Aston team is one of very few teams at the competition to take on the challenge of running on a fuel cell. Jake has helped design the fuel cell installation and control system to achieve zero emissions.
Project academic lead Dr Christian McLening provides guidance to the team throughout the year. A lecturer in transport and product design, Christian encourages the team to be innovative and challenge conventional vehicle design for the Shell challenge.
Nick Walsh Atkins is enjoying his second year competing in Shell Eco-marathon. As team manager, he focuses on getting all his teammates to work together, and challenges them to improve the car’s design and construction. He loves skiing and is a strong supporter of London’s Chelsea Football Club.