December 3, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

"this sport has all the glitz and glamour of Formula 1, but with zero emissions" - Arutyun Arutyunyan explores Formula E

“this sport has all the glitz and glamour of Formula 1, but with zero emissions”

SONY DSCIn an increasingly environmentally conscious world, the inception of Formula E, an entirely new discipline in the Formula series, seems like a solid step towards addressing climate change. Backed by the likes of Leonardo Di Caprio & Jarno Trulli this sport has all the glitz and glamour of Formula 1, but with zero emissions. For this inaugural season the FIA (the International Automobile Federation) have, for the first time, approved a car for team-wide use. Whilst all the teams are currently racing the same Spark- Renault SRT_01E provided by French-based company Spark Racing Technology, from the second season Formula E will become an ‘open championship’ allowing teams to create their own car from scratch. But how is this technology achieved? What makes Formula E so special, and what impacts can this have on us, outside of racing?

The technology needed to create an electric race car for Formula E is no small feat. Developing a battery that can make a car race at speeds of 150mph for one hour requires a great deal of scientific and engineering prowess as well as a large helping of creativity on the side; these racing machines are nothing short of works of art. The super lightweight chassis is made out of carbon fibre and aluminum, and meets all the safety standards of the FIA (the same standards that all Formula 1 cars have to meet). And if you thought this electric beauty is simply there to be seen but not heard then you would be mistaken: on average, the racecar produces around 80 decibels at high speeds, which is more than the average road car (they sit at 70db).

Formula_e Motori Italia 15629491858_f02ccf0001_oThe electric powertrain and electronics are supplied by McLaren Electronics Systems whilst the engineering marvel that is the battery is the brainchild of their Formula 1 rival Williams Advanced Engineering. With a cell weight of 320kg it’s a hefty little thing but with its bulk comes a great deal of power. Limited, by FIA rules, to a maximum power of 200kW and an output of 28kW/h this battery produces the equivalent of 270bhp (brake horsepower) allowing it to reach a top speed of 225km/h (150mph) and do 0-100km/h (0-62mph) in three seconds. That’s the same as a Lamborghini Aventador. While the Lamborghini guzzles a bucket load of petrol, the Spark-Renault simply produces a delightfully futuristic whirring sound.

Though the Williams battery is a good deal bigger than its F1 counterpart, the hardware architecture is identical. It has a built-in Faraday cage and thermal barrier to ensure the complete safety of the driver during accidents, and as we saw in the maiden Formula E Grand Prix in September when Prost and Heidfeld crashed on the final turn, accidents do happen. With an imposed restriction of 50 minutes on charging time, Williams Advanced Engineering had another hurdle they needed to overcome. How is this enormous battery, which had been racing at full capacity during qualifying, charged without overheating? This was expertly resolved by installing a liquid cooling system, a phenomenal achievement.

However, the technology still has a way to go. Drivers still need to make one stop per race to swap cars which, believe me, looks as ridiculous as it sounds.

438px-Katherine_Legge-DTM_Driver-6Aside from the technology there are a lot of other things that make Formula E special. For one, they’ve introduced a new idea never before seen in the FIA realm – the ‘Fan Boost’. This allows fans to interact with the sport on a scale previously unheard of. By voting for their favourite racer before a Grand Prix they can activate a ‘Fan Boost’ for the driver with the most votes, allowing the racer to add an additional 30kW (the equivalent of 40.5bhp) of power to their car for five seconds per car (drivers use two cars per race). In this modern social media obsessed world, the race organisers have really come up with a winner, getting fans more invested into the sport and adding that extra bit of excitement to each race.

Formula E has also seen, for the first time since 1976, two first-string female drivers (Katherine Legge and Michela Cerruti) in a Formula Championship. Though Formula 1 has Susie Wolff, she is still a test/reserve driver and is yet to start a Grand Prix.

It’s all well and good to discuss the brilliance of Formula E in the racing world but how can its revolutionary technology help us? To answer that question we can simply look at Formula 1 and what that has done for the advancement of technology. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to know that Formula 1 hasn’t just made our road cars faster and safer, but has had an impact on our lives in various other ways. This includes the ‘Baby Pod II’, a device modelled on the driver’s cockpit, allowing paramedics to safely transport newborns, to the ‘Boiler Buddy’ and a carbon fibre all terrain wheelchair. It’s still too early in the life of Formula E to determine how or when exactly this innovative sport will transform our lives, other than significantly improving the tech behind our electric cars. But it will probably do so sooner rather than later, due to the increasing pressure from the UN for countries to cut down their greenhouse emissions. With no carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds or lead (amongst other toxic substances) expelled by electric cars, the air will become significantly cleaner and greenhouse gas emissions will likewise see a decrease. Formula E hopes to help spark the development of our electric cars and make them more efficient by improving the storage density of their batteries as well as improving charging times and life span.

It also seems fitting that a sport so focused on ‘cleaning up our cities’ has all of its Grand Prix right in the middle of them. With the Beijing race circling the magnificent Bird’s Nest, the host stadium during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the final race of the season being hosted in our very own Battersea Park, the racing looks to make a big impact on our cities. So do make sure to tune in, the London Grand Prix takes place on the 27th June 2015, and perhaps even join in on the voting for the coveted Fan Boost.

Arutyun Arutyunyan is studying for an MSc in Advanced Materials Science and Engineering

Images: Featured image, Spark-Renault SRT_01E; Formula E – Oriol Servia, by Motori Italia; Katherine Legge by Crosa