Alfaisal UniversityRenewable modes of transport

Renewable modes of transport

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The Boeing-funded Solar Car Project at Alfaisal University is developing a vehicle for our future smart power grids

Now in its fifth year, the Boeing-funded Solar Car Project (BSCP) at Alfaisal University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, aims to develop a single-passenger solar powered car capable of speeds up to 120 km/h. This would put it in the same league as models competing in the renowned Bridgestone World Solar Challenge in Australia, the route of which goes the 3,000 km from Darwin to Adelaide, the Sasol Solar Challenge in South Africa, where the BSCP intends to compete in February 2021, and the American Solar Challenge.

Ahmed Oteafy, assistant professor of electrical engineering and director of the Joint Smart Grids and Electric Vehicles R&D Centre (JSEC), first put forward the project for one of Boeing’s worldwide Cybergrant Competitions for student-based projects.

“The solar car provides a testbed for engineering innovation in a challenging renewable energy cyber-physical [algorithm-controlled] system,” he says.

Although the BSCP is an extracurricular undergraduate project, it is relevant to four of Alfaisal’s five engineering departments, including electrical, mechanical, software and industrial engineering. “It’s not just contrived examples in the classroom, the students are directly involved in the PCB [printed circuit board] design, the mechanical design, the software, and so on,” explains Dr Oteafy.

The project’s student team leader, Habib Farooq, testifies to the benefits of such a hands-on project. “The students and the team have gained a wealth of technical knowledge that they would not have otherwise done if they solely followed the academic curriculum,” he says. “For example, concepts such as design for manufacturing, thermal management and its influence on design, and overcoming challenges in combining industry standards with theory to create functioning products in stressful environments. Furthermore, we gained soft skills that include financial management, logistics, resource allocation, communication, media engagement, leadership, and team management.” 

The engagement and ability of the students involved has impressed Boeing, which, as an Alfaisal University partner, often sends its research and technology engineers from the US and Europe to Riyadh to give seminars, and also to engage in parts of the project.

“A company [such as Boeing] has a very specific timeline: they want to see products at a given date,” says Dr Oteafy. “So, unlike dealing with a research grant institute, the research and development stage is not very flexible. They [Boeing] took from our side that if you are supporting an academic institution you need to allow a more flexible timeline and, on our side, we need to develop more realistic goals along the way.”

Complementing the BSCP is another of JSEC’s flagship research projects, “active balancing”, a process that increases the longevity of a lithium ion battery pack and can help batteries of different ages and chemistries work together. Active balancing will have a massive impact on electric vehicles and on domestic “powerwalls”, which use repurposed laptop and electric vehicle batteries to store energy from national grids and microgrids. These microgrids may also be “smart grids”, which are defined as an intelligent power system based on information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and utilising renewable energy sources, such as solar.

Smart grids are also a key area of JSEC’s research, in particular researching the best algorithms to maximise their energy output. Its work on the BSCP also complements this. “When researching solar-powered car design, or electric vehicles for that matter, you are also developing the technology for smart grids,” explains Dr Oteafy. “The same things that go into designing a car – for example, battery pack design, energy storage, controllers, motors, generators and the management of all this – go into microgrids, whether they are autonomous or connecting to the main grid.”

Because of its high incidence of solar radiation and low precipitation, the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia in particular, is a prime location for solar power. Dr Oteafy notes that Saudi Arabia “can achieve the lowest cost of electricity worldwide”, adding that “it has been clear for a decade that being world leader in solar power was the direction that Saudi Arabia should go for”.

Dr Oteafy wants his students to know that the opportunities on their doorstep are as exciting as any in the US or in Europe. JSEC’s ambition to create a graduate programme in electrical engineering that includes the study of renewable energy will no doubt help this. Meanwhile, proposals for smart grids are currently being discussed with electrical companies and funding agencies in Saudi Arabia.

Alfaisal University also utilises partnerships with international universities to help realise its renewal energy ambitions. Its relationship with AGH University of Science and Technology in Poland continues apace, with Dr Oteafy’s team working on a laboratory-based microgrid and the AGH team simultaneously working on a smart power meter.

Looking to the future, Formula E cars and solar-powered boats are among the new forms of transport that JSEC could research to expand its work, although Dr Oteafy wants to avoid diluting his team’s efforts. Regarding the possible future development of the solar-powered car, he envisages a mass-marketisation of a vehicle targeted at the young, which is able to use the same grid as electric vehicles to be recharged. “Imagine shortening the cycle of millions of years that it took solar power to turn into petroleum and run our cars, into an instant conversion process powering our cars,” he says, indicating that the future of electric vehicles may be due another revolution.

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