The Green Petrol Heads: Developing Practical Professional Engineering Skills That Generate Interest in Sustainable Engineering
Kestell, Colin, Australasian Journal of Engineering Education
During the Adelaide 2008 March heatwave, which was the longest on record (The Age, 2008), Caltex predicted that Australian fuel prices would double over the next decade (The Herald Sun, 2008). Both headlines seemed inseparably entwined amidst the scientific data that links the global voracious combustion of unsustainable carbon-based fuels to an exponential increase of carbon emissions and global warming (Hansen & Lebedeff, 1987). There is clearly a correlation between meteorological data that charts the carbon dioxide emissions from burnt fossil fuels, the carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere and an underlying pattern of global temperature change (Kuo et al, 1990; Etheridge et al, 1996; Keeling & Whorf, 2005; NASA, 2006). The need for sustainable, eco-friendly energy sources that cause far less damage to our environment is further exacerbated by the fact that our existing fuel sources are also certain to run out (Deffeyes, 2003), even though there is fierce debate as to when. This data is not new, but a sense of urgency has been slow to kick-in.
At the end of the last century the transport sector was recognised as a significant consumer of Australian energy resources and sustainable transport issues were becoming increasingly important to the community (Engineers Australia, 1999; 2001). Technological advancements mean that genuine practical solutions do now exist towards reducing carbon dioxide emissions through the use of (multiple) sustainable fuel alternatives. Sweden, for example, intends to be fossil-fuel-independent by 2020 (Olofsson, 2005). However, despite this the Australian preference for large six-cylinder vehicles was still increasing at an alarming rate until very recently (Australian Government, 2003). Unger (1992) explained that the scientific evidence of environmental damage is insufficient to encourage change and that it is only taken seriously when the evidence is complimented by significant and disturbing real-world events, such as extraordinary weather conditions that lead to a catastrophe. It therefore seems that recent events, like the 2004 Tsunami (Lindenmayer, 2007) and the 2005 Hurricane Katrina maybe providing the impetuous for change and the sense of urgency that has been missing. Australian politicians have also now gathered some momentum towards recognising the need to address both climate change and the energy resource crisis (The Daily Telegraph, 2007). Consumers are now buying smaller more fuel efficient cars (The Age, 2006; NRMA, 2006) and hybrid cars are also increasing in popularity with many more motorists believing that these alternatives are part of the answer (The Australian Automobile Association, 2008). This all indicates that the timing is ideal for engineers to help accelerate real and dramatic change. However, for this to happen our young engineering students must graduate with the theoretical knowledge, practical skills, confidence and (above all) enthusiasm to play an effective part.
2 RAISING THE PROFILE OF SUSTAINABLE ENERGY ENGINEERING
While engineering programs and curricula continually expand and evolve to keep pace with emerging issues and technological advancements, lectures remain of fundamental importance for the transmission of relevant facts, theories and general information. However, while good lectures can be inspirational (Edwards et al, 2001), many important issues, such as sustainability, can be perceived as insignificant among the plethora of subjects that need to be covered. In such an environment, if any aspect of education seems dull, or not an "essential exam snippet", it might quickly be overlooked or forgotten. The cognitive development of the student and ability to achieve the learning outcomes of a course therefore require complimentary pedagogical methods that draw the students' interest and let the focus shift to what is being learnt rather than what is being taught (Mills et al, 2003). Team-based engineering design and build challenges do this by extending teaching to beyond the systematic preaching of the course and incorporate student-centred learning in which a collaborative and cooperative situation develops (Smith et al, 2005). Such interactive teaching environments with a practical focus on vocational problem-based learning (PBL) are all recognised to be excellent methods to complement and reinforce the lessons of engineering. Wee (2004) more specifically defines these as "authentic problem-based learning (APBL)" examples because the student engages directly in the same diagnoses of problems and activities that they are likely to practice in their profession. PBL encourages the students to learn in the context of requiring the knowledge to solve the problem, while this in turn encourages self-motivated research and a commitment to life-long learning (Woods, 1998). The projects also need to be interesting and exciting enough to perpetuate the students' enthusiasm and continued interest after their completion.
3 FORMULA SAE COMPETITION: AN EXAMPLE OF EXCELLENCE
The Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineering) project is one such example that creates immense excitement among undergraduate engineering students, with many graduates who had previously been involved offering to assist the new recruits in their spare time. While it does not have a sustainable energy focus (perhaps the opposite), it is an excellent model on which to base projects that do. Formula SAE is a competitive collegiate event that challenges students to design and build a small race car that then competes in performance and design evaluation events against other university teams. The teams raise their own finance and hence learn to recognise the importance of working to genuine budgets. They usually practice a systems engineering approach and subdivide into smaller groups that each specialise on certain aspects of the project, which includes the business and managerial aspects as well as technical design. A hierarchical structure ensures good communication for a homogeneously evolving product. The competition organisers ask that academic supervisors encourage teams to take on the full ownership of the project so that they accept responsibility for their mistakes as well as their successes. Supervisors therefore adopt a consultative engineering role and so guide, rather than make, any decisions. To achieve success, teams need to consider many areas of engineering that include (while not being limited to) vehicle dynamics, thermo-fluids, aerodynamics, materials, stresses, manufacturing and engineering design. In addition to this, the teams also practice effective teamwork, time management, cost control as well as written, oral and graphical communication methods. The organisers regularly promote the value of the event by telling students that employers value their participation and compare it to 12-months of on-the-job training in terms of the practical lessons that are learnt. It is the author's experience that participating students are regularly approached by eager employers and that the majority of these graduates commence lucrative and rewarding careers with an employer of their choice. Since the introduction of Formula SAE in the USA in 1980, the competition has expanded rapidly and globally (Charity, 2004). The US now has two events annually to cope with demand and since the introduction of Formula SAE in Australia in 2000 "every University in Australia with a relevant [engineering] department is now participating in this competition" (Attard & Watson, 2006). In recognition of its obvious value to engineering education, the University of Adelaide has regularly taken part in the FSAE competition since 2001 (figure 1).
4 APPLYING THE LESSONS TO SUSTAINABLE ENERGY ENGINEERING
It is evident that students become totally engrossed in Formula SAE and, through their own impetus, develop many invaluable engineering attributes that will help them to be more immediately valuable as employees. The practical value of this project and the way that it entices and motivates students can also be applied to sustainable engineering projects. In these, the students encounter the issue of sustainable alternative energy and apply their existing body of knowledge to deduce what further research and development is required towards a comprehended solution (Schwartz et al, 2001). Students in the School of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Adelaide recently took part in two such projects: The Hybrid Solar Electric Vehicle and the Biodiesel Motorbike, both of which were intended to be immensely attractive to final year honours students.
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5 THE HYBRID SOLAR ELECTRIC VEHICLE
In 2006 the Hybrid Electric Solar Vehicle (HSEV) project was established to encourage a team of four mechanical engineering students and five electrical engineering students to consider a commercially viable electric vehicle that would incorporate electric solar cells to extend its range (figure 2). The project was broken down into two initial phases so that the goals, while still challenging, were achievable. Phase one (for 2006) required that the students should conduct a thorough research appraisal of the idea, design a commercially attractive vehicle and then produce a physical mock-up, using the tools that would normally be used in the design and development of a prototype or concept vehicle in industry.
The students chose a sporty design that would enable the car to be small and hence lightweight, while also helping to ensure its market appeal. After their research defined a clear project direction, the students worked on a three-dimensional digital prototype, using computer aided design (CAD) software that is commonly used in industry, to develop the ergonomics, aesthetics and (ultimately) the packaging of subassemblies, such as the power train and the control systems. In a similar fashion to the previously mentioned Formula SAE project, a systems engineering approach was adopted and each student tackled a specific subsystem of the design in which they further developed engineering expertise and attributes directly pertinent to their responsibilities. Once the digital prototype was completed, the students began the manufacture of a full-scale mock-up using an advanced three dimensional CAD/CAM foam milling technique (figure 3). Once again, this is a common practice of the automotive industry in which clay or foam mock-ups are produced to evaluate and then develop the initial appearance and integration of the overall design ensuring that the overall form is not merely a result of assembling the components.
The academic requirements of the project ensured that the need for more sustainable energy engineering methods and the importance of developing a more ecologically sound and sustainable transport system were all thoroughly researched and hence understood. This requirement of the project had a real and obvious positive effect on the students' motivation.
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The construction of the mock-up also provided an opportunity for the students to liaise with subcontractors (for the CNC milling) and work very closely with the university's technicians who mentored and assisted them throughout the often complex and exhausting construction process.
Newly recruited graduates, who might follow an accelerated career pathway, can sometimes experience problems communicating effectively with technical staff because of an element of their naivety regarding the essential skills and knowledge that qualified technicians typically bring to engineering teams. The opportunity to work with technical staff amidst stressful periods with real problems and deadlines, before graduating, therefore helped to develop an appreciation of the necessary skill diversity within real successful engineering teams.
The unveiling of the mock-up was extremely successful and the publicity that it attracted helped to secure sponsorship for the following year and hence allow further development towards a semi-functional vehicle. In 2007 eight mechanical engineering students and four electrical engineering students began the task of adding a significant amount of functionality to the vehicle within a fixed budget and timescale (figure 4).
Once again, the team were encouraged to commence with a thorough literature review so that they could begin to understand the issues and hence help to establish the pathway for their roles in the HSEV project. The team had more design responsibilities than the previous team and had to use engineering practices to evaluate the functionality and robustness of their designs. Some of their findings led towards a need to significantly remodel the body of the car, the fibreglass shell of which they wanted to incorporate into the structure of their vehicle. The students made significant progress in developing a chassis, a suspension and steering system, a solar "top-up" system and some of the electric control systems. Similarly to the previous year's team, the students worked closely with technical staff, and worked long and hard hours to complete their goals (figure 5). The completion of a fully-functioning and legally-compliant vehicle is extremely ambitious, and so while there remains a significant number of development opportunities for future teams on this project, the 2007 students had excellent opportunities to put their knowledge of engineering theory into practice and worked effectively as an interdisciplinary group developing essential practical engineering team-work skills.
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6 THE BIOBIKE
The Biodiesel Motorbike Project (or the Biobike, as the students named it) also provided an opportunity for participating students to practice (and further develop) their knowledge of engineering theory, develop their vocational skills and gain a direct appreciation of sustainable energy engineering. Like most alternative fuels (as the students noted), biodiesel does have its critics, but it is a sustainable partial solution that may help slow down the depletion of fossil-fuel supplies and also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is efficiently produced by a simple chemical transesterification process in which waste oils and tallow (animal fat) or harvested oil yielding crops are transformed into biodiesel and glycerol (MacLean et al, 2000). The ratio of energy output (in the engine) to fossil fuel energy input (during production) is typically greater than 3:1, implying that it can significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Vegetable based biodiesel absorbs CO2 while growing and is therefore far more CO2 neutral than fossil fuels (Beer et al, 2004; 2005; Sheehan et al, 1998; Bowman et al, 2006). The Biobike was intended to demonstrate the feasibility of biodiesel in a small lightweight novel application. Motorbikes are not usually associated with any form of diesel, and so it was also intended to test the students' research ability, innovation and theoretical knowledge of automotive engineering, while also developing their practical teamwork skills, and their appreciation of alternative fuels and sustainable energy engineering.
In 2006 the first team of nine enthusiastic students commenced work on the project during their Christmas vacation, many weeks before the commencement of the semester in which the project was initially scheduled to start. They clarified the issues, identified their needs and set their goals. Once again similarly to the Formula SAE and HSEV projects, the students adopted a systems engineering approach to the project, breaking up into a number of smaller teams so that each had a specific area of responsibility and thus develop their chosen technical expertise. The definition of a good management structure ensured effective communication and an appreciation of who had to do what and by when. They marketed themselves and quickly convinced a number of companies (through presentations, subsequent meetings and ongoing liaisons) to sponsor them with sufficient funds, parts and materials to cover their budget estimate. They then developed a digital prototype to assist with their engineering analysis, and to ensure the smooth integration and assembly of both custom designed and off-the-shelf components. Once the modelling was completed and the ordered parts began to arrive, the team began the manufacture of their first "proof of concept", fully-functioning prototype. The bike was designed for an agricultural application for two reasons. Firstly, it helped to cement an ideology of sustainability with farmers that grew biodiesel feedstock using biodiesel bikes to help manage their land. Secondly, the students' research revealed that farmers were keen for a common fuel. While farming equipment typically uses diesel, motorbikes and quad bikes still require petrol, causing logistic problems for the farmers.
Figure 6 shows the 2006 prototype through the various stages of design and manufacture. The design is based on a heavily modified and recycled Husaberg motocross bike, a modified 410cc industrial Yanmar diesel engine, and a Comet CVT transmission. All of these components were selected by the students to maximise performance, ergonomics, ease of manufacture and fuel efficiency.
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The completed bike was unveiled at the Royal Adelaide Show, a very popular South Australian agricultural carnival, where it received considerable interest and praise from the farming community. The students attracted significant media attention, and were extremely excited about raising the profile of sustainable engineering and alternative fuels.
News of the bike (figure 7) was published on the front page of the University of Adelaide's quarterly publication The Adelaidean (Ellis, 2006), which in turn led to a glowing review in Adelaide's popular daily news paper The Advertiser (Cooper, 2006) and televised features on three of the major television networks (The ABC, 2006; Channel Seven, 2006; Channel Ten, 2006). All praised the students' practical application of an alternative sustainable fuel. Yanmar (the teams main sponsor) subsequently played host to two of the students in Tokyo for the 2007 World Earth Day festivities (at which the bike was also exhibited) and took them to see their headquarters in Osaka.
In 2007 (figure 8) the new team were ambitiously tasked with developing the bike to improve its safety, increase power, reduce noise, improve reliability and to ensure that it complied with strict Australian Design Rules so that it could be legally ridden on Australian roads. Furthermore, the new second prototype of the Biobike was to be entered in the alternative fuel (Greenfleet) class of the 2007 World Solar Car Challenge; a gruelling seven-day ride across the Australian outback from Darwin to Adelaide in extreme summer conditions. In addition to the engineering challenges (that included both exhaust noise, and supercharger performance modelling and testing), the team were required to regularly liaise with the Department of Transport and the event organisers. They also had to organise all the logistical aspects of competing in the event. They successfully raised the required sponsorship, and redesigned, engineered and manufactured a new bike that was scrutinised by the Department of Transport, which deemed it to be fully compliant with the South Australian legal requirements for road use. The bike was tested around Adelaide (turning many a head) and the team organised a support crew, the transport of the bike to Darwin, as well as food and accommodation for the entire event. While some of the team rode motorbikes, others (including their supervisor) had to gain (and train for) their licences so that they could be included in the excitement of participating. The team were also fortunate to be accompanied by Mr Shusei Yamada, one of Japan's most respected motor sport journalists and a Dakar Rally veteran, who was commissioned to compile a photographic journal for Yanmar. After the bike and the team all arrived safely in Darwin they soon commenced their journey southwards with the riders (including Mr Yamada and the teams supervisor) all taking their turn. The event itself drew the team much closer together, and while their achievements along the way were rewarding, the mistakes and near-disasters during the course of the journey were truly character building. The team had to deal with malfunctioning brakes, lost governor springs, broken welds, mangled sprockets and a seized piston. Help was provided on numerous occasions from a great many people who were all eager to assist the dedicated students.
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The team were elated that their bike made it across the finish line and they invited Mr Yamada to be their final rider (figure 9). Later on, when the presentations were made, the team learnt that the bike had the lowest total net carbon emissions during the event. Combining this with their fuel economy had earned them first place in the alternative fuel Greenfleet Class. They had won.
Today's schools of engineering are faced with the increasingly difficult task of ensuring that their graduates attain a satisfactory level of theoretical understanding and technical competency. Engineering students have so much to learn, much of which is complex and difficult to understand.
It therefore becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make them enthusiastic about every aspect of their education and some components of a curriculum therefore run the risk of being ignored. Lectures may appear to be an ideal method for conveying the vast amounts of information to large audiences, but properly designed projects that emulate the true professional environment of the engineer help to provide an opportunity to apply and reinforce this knowledge. They also help to develop practical vocational skills, essential to a professional engineer, thus making them more immediately valuable to their prospective employers. Focusing these PBL projects on sustainability issues in an exciting manner encourages the participants to become excited about their potential to contribute to change.
All of the students that took part in the HSEV and the Biobike enjoyed the sustainable energy aspect of their projects. They were attracted to the projects for different reasons, but now all have well balanced views regarding alternative fuels and sustainable engineering. They all had opportunities to apply their knowledge of engineering theories to a true-to-life engineering design problem and all developed practical skills that will help them to perform far more effectively in a professional engineering team environment. Their much publicised successes also promise to ensure the continued popularity of these exciting projects and thus encourage engineering students to practice sustainable engineering for many more years to come.
The author would like to acknowledge the achievement of all of his students and the support of the staff at the University of Adelaide. Yanmar Japan was extremely supportive of the Biobike team, as was Mr Shusei Yamada, who has also provided permission to use some of his excellent photographs in figures 8 and 9.
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CD Kestell ([dagger])
The University of Adelaide, South Australia
* Paper D08-037 submitted 20/05/08; accepted for publication after review and revision 10/09/08.
([dagger]) Corresponding author Dr Colin Kestell can be contacted at email@example.com.
Colin David Kestell started his engineering career as a trainee draughtsman at British Aerospace in 1979. His successful college results soon enabled him to transfer to the Student Apprenticeship program, in which he studied towards his engineering degree while also gaining practical experience in a variety of engineering R&D departments. As a graduate engineer, he specialised in the test and development of missiles, but soon afterwards moved on to Matra Marconi Space Systems, where he tested satellites in the role of Senior Engineer. A few years later in 1991 he immigrated to Australia with his young family to manage an engineering test facility at Australian Defence Industries near Sydney. A dramatic lifestyle change in 1997 resulted in full-time research at The University of Adelaide towards his PhD in acoustics, where he was eventually to become a full-time tenured member of staff. Colin is now a Senior Lecturer at The University of Adelaide and is responsible for engineering design within the School of Mechanical Engineering. He is a chartered professional engineer and has won a number of teaching awards which reflect his true passion engineering education.…
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Publication information: Article title: The Green Petrol Heads: Developing Practical Professional Engineering Skills That Generate Interest in Sustainable Engineering. Contributors: Kestell, Colin - Author. Journal title: Australasian Journal of Engineering Education. Volume: 14. Issue: 2 Publication date: October 2008. Page number: 105+. © 2010 The Institution of Engineers, Australia. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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