NASCAR might conjure up images of speed-mad rednecks waving flags. However, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes in the world of racing cars, much of it environmentally-friendly. A new book by Kit Chapman, “Racing Green: How Motorsport Science Can Save the World,” explained the technology behind the vroom.
Whether or not you’re a car buff, “Racing Green” by Kit Chapman is an extremely engaging read. It’s the perfect book for people who love cars, but feel guilty about using fossil fuels. Chapman, a lifelong racing fan, traced the history of motorsport science and how its technological breakthroughs can help save the world.
“Motorsport is often dismissed as a trivial, environmentally harmful, perilous spectacle,” Chapman wrote in the introduction. “For critics, it’s a modern chariot race, horses and whips replaced by petrol-guzzling cars that spew out noise and fury for the joy of millions…At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of cars going around in circles, right? Not even close. It’s so much more. I don’t see chariots racing around the Circus Maximus as the mob bays for blood. I see the world’s fastest R&D lab.”
The history of electric cars
Electric vehicles are touted as the future of transportation. But they have a longer history than you might imagine. There is the story of Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat. Dubbed “the Electric Count,” he won a one-kilometer course race in about 57 seconds in his brother’s electric vehicle. That was in 1898. Of course, electric vehicles have come a long way in the last 120 or so years. The Electric Count’s car didn’t even have brakes.
In 1968, the brainiacs at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) held the Great Electric Car Race. The aim was to drive from one campus to the other. That is, Cambridge, Massachusetts to Pasadena, California. It didn’t go so well. MIT’s car spent 37 hours being towed.
The problem, as is still the case, was batteries. And so Chapman traced the history of batteries. He went back to a ceramic pot with a copper tube and an iron rod made in Iraq sometime between 250 BC and 650 AD. He covered the discovery of lithium by a Brazilian geologist who found an unusual rock in Sweden in 1800. And then onward to the increasingly efficient rechargeable batteries of today.
A modern battery delivers about 90% of its power to a vehicle. This is compared with only 35% for an internal combustion engine. And there are no emissions. However, batteries still store nowhere near the amount of chemical energy that we get from fossil fuel. Car manufacturers are currently trying to improve the energy density, cost, safety, charging ability and lifetime of batteries. Chapman examined the pros and cons of various battery materials, including lithium, nickel, magnesium and cobalt.
Race car technology to the medical field
Chapman took readers into automotive research and development labs around the world, showing the surprising reach of race car technology. For example, international racing giant Formula One has inspired changes in the U.K.’s National Health Service.
“In hospitals, 70% of mistakes are usually breakdowns in communication – technical or information errors – and half of these occur at this ‘hand-off,’ for example by transferring a patient before a bed is set up for them,” Chapman wrote. “[Pediatrician Allan] Goldman wondered if his team could copy the balletic, choreographed precision that makes a pit crew able to change four tires in less than three seconds.”
Sure enough, by adopting pit procedures, technical errors fell by 42% over the next two years.
Furthermore, during the ventilator shortage in the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, people who worked in the motorsports world played an important role. They were suddenly manufacturing masks and designing devices to help sick people breathe and barriers to protect healthcare workers.
New materials from the racing world
While most cars are made in environmentally-unfriendly manufacturing processes, “Racing Green” illuminates possible materials of the future. Porsche has already manufactured the Cayman 718 GT4 with its bodywork made entirely from interwoven flax fibers. Allegedly, it can save 85% of the usual carbon footprint and cut raw materials costs by almost a third.
“And when you combine that with graphene batteries and graphene electrical circuits, you’re suddenly able to store massive amounts of energy and transfer it in an instant, all while keeping the temperature cool. You could charge a car in minutes, or your mobile phone in seconds,” Chapman wrote.
Colorful characters and their stories
In Chapman’s book, scientists and engineers are anything but boring. “Racing Green” brings car researchers to life with funny and engaging stories. Not only will readers learn a lot about car technology and materials of the future, they’ll be entertained along the way.
Images via “Racing Green” and Pexels
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