An Imperial alumna tells how her time with old boots, batteries and a banged up washing machine set her on course for a career in Formula One.
Alice Rowlands threw a pair of old boots into a washing machine, strapped a battery pack on top, switched the machine onto the fast cycle and then watched closely as everything shuddered about violently.
This was not a new and unconventional method to wash dirty boots, says Alice. In fact, it is one of her fondest memories of her time working with a team in the workshops of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, back in 2010.
Alice and her team mates were testing the battery as part of the Imperial Racing Green (IRG) project - a flagship project in the Faculty of Engineering where undergraduates design, build and test zero emission racing cars.
My fondest memory of the IRG project was taking the car for a drive around a test track in Dunsfold following an all-nighter in the garage to get it ready.
– David Zhong
“We wanted to test how vibrations from the vehicle affected the performance of the battery,” said Alice, who graduated from Imperial in 2011 with a first class degree in Mechanical Engineering. “So we turned an old washing machine into a makeshift test rig in the workshop. The experiment worked perfectly and we even put a picture of the ‘rig’ in our project report!”
“Working on an IRG car and doing all those fun experiments was a good way to demonstrate to employers my interest in motorsport and the automotive industry in general,” said Alice. “I think the technical understanding I gained was particularly important in terms of my understanding of how hybrid and conventional vehicles work,” Alice added.
Now, Alice specialises in modelling and analysing powertrains - the components that generate power in a car. She also develops computer models that enable engineers to analyse in more detail how the race cars perform on the track. In addition, she works on a simulator to understand how the car and driver interact to produce the best possible lap times during a race.
Since it began in 2001, approximately 700 students like Alice have taken part in the project. Over the years, successive teams have won awards for their vehicles and competed in races with other universities from around the world.
David Zong, another veteran of IRG, worked in the suspension and brakes team, designing, testing and manufacturing them for the IRG04 vehicle. These are skills he now puts to good use working in Nissan’s suspension design group. He says that IRG helped him to develop his professional skills before he entered the workforce, giving him valuable insights into challenges of working in the automotive industry.
David, who graduated from Imperial in 2011, said the great balance between theoretical and practical hands-on aspects of engineering were some of the things he liked most about course. He says the project also fostered an “excellent” team atmosphere.
“My fondest memory of the IRG project was taking the car for a drive around a test track in Dunsfold following an all-nighter in the garage to get it ready. It felt extremely rewarding and exciting driving it, following two years of hard work by everybody to make it track worthy.”
A major spin-off from Imperial Racing Green was the Racing Green Endurance (RGE) project, where alumni and undergraduates got together to build an all-electric supercar. In 2010, they drove the car 26,000 kilometres down the Pan American Highway, passing through 14 countries in 140 days.
Toby Schulz is a veteran of both IRG and the RGE projects. He says working on RGE enabled him to travel all over the world.
“I have so many fond memories of the RGE trip,” says Toby. “However, if I were to single one out it would be reaching Ushuaia in Argentina and realising how far we had driven and how many challenges we had overcome to make it to the end. Sometimes I still wonder how we did it!”
Since graduating, Toby and his team mate Alex Schey have used valuable project management skills gained while taking part in RGE to establish the start-up company Vantage Power. They are now in the process of building a new type of powertrain to replace conventional engines and gearboxes in double-decker buses, to make them more environmentally friendly and fuel efficient.
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