The circular automobile

Published on 08 March 2018

A circular car made of biobased materials and 100% recyclable - fact or fiction? A student team from Eindhoven University of Technology (TU) is working hard to make this a reality. “And it’s closer than you think.”


Tekst ARN Redactie

Home base for the students is a long white room in a quiet corner of the campus. It looks exactly as might be expected from a TU student project: full of desks, backpacks, laptops and computers with enthusiastic, web-surfing and 20-year-old designers working on them among all the material samples and scale models. It is clearly a space - ‘out of the box’ - for ideas.

Lightweight four-seater

The 22 young men and women of the TU Ecomotive student team have been working on a unique project here since last September. They are developing an innovative lightweight two-seat electric car that they’ve dubbed NOAH and which they hope will bring mankind a lot closer to circular mobility. Their ultimate goal is to ‘greenify’ the entire automobile industry.

Designing and building

The design was completed in early February and a functioning prototype on wheels is expected to be ready by the end of June. That’s an ambitious timeline. After all, let’s be honest, designing and developing a car is no walk in the park, let alone creating a 100% sustainable car. Not only that, but they’re only students, have less than a year to finish the project and a very limited budget. Yet, they are aiming extremely high. “Our goal is to make NOAH the first completely circular car,” says Ellen Veldman, the team’s 23-year-old account manager who earned a Bachelor’s degree last year in Psychology & Technology and is doing this project as a gap year. “And it needs to be approved by the RDW, the Dutch Vehicle Authority. After all, we don’t want this to be a project that might someday in the far future become a reality, but a car that is road ready when we’re done.”

Biobased raw materials

In designing their circular car, the students are taking a two-track approach. The first track: biobased raw materials. For each component, the team is researching whether it can be developed of organic materials. Where possible, they are designing and producing these components themselves. “The chassis and body, for instance, will be made of flax polypropylene plates with a bio-PLA core. This is flax fibre with a strong honeycomb structure in-between based on sugar beet,” explains Nicole Huizing, a 25-year-old fifth-year Mechanical Engineering student and the team’s chief mechanical engineer. “Replacing conventional steel with natural products like flax lets us save a considerable amount of energy and, consequently, results in a much smaller carbon footprint. We also plan to use flax in the interior.”

Modular updating

The second trump card en route to circularity is the modular construction. With a modular car, you can simply replace any defective components. The idea is to create a car with a very long life span. The clever inventors from Eindhoven even want to make the electronic components - usually the most difficult to recycle - modular. “This way, if you have a minor defect, you won’t have to discard the entire mainboard, but can simply replace the parts,” says Wouter Wolthuis, 20, third-year Electrical Engineering student and chief electrical engineer. “We’re going to install the electronics in a single casing as much as possible, so they can be removed all at once during disassembly.”

The latter is important because, naturally, it should also be possible to disassemble the ultimate circular car efficiently. “That’s something we’ve taken into account in the design,” says Wouter. “It should be a little like an IKEA cabinet in terms of assembly, i.e. with easy connections. This will make disassembly, sorting and recycling much easier in the future.”

Automotive suppliers

Where possible, the students are working together closely with Dutch supply companies. NXP, 3M and Würth are good partners, as is VDL. Nicole comments, “One of our partners is the VDL milling company VDL GL Precision. Their specialists examine our designs in terms of milling parts. We send them our drawings, they assess them and carry out the precision milling work. It’s the perfect partnership and we’re very pleased with the work.”

The time pressure is intense: the drivable prototype must be RDW-approved by the end of June.

Major challenges

The team faces plenty of challenges. “One of the most difficult aspects is the batteries. They’re not easily and efficiently recyclable at present. We’ve decided to go with lithium-ion batteries in removable cassettes. We can replace them in the near future with new generations of batteries that will probably have ten times more capacity. So instead of a smaller action radius, you get a larger one as your car ages.” The tyres are, unfortunately, not as ‘green’ as the team would like. “Biobased car tyres are available, but not in the size we need. We simply don’t have the budget to have tyres specially developed for us.”

Revolution in the automobile world

Although the students are first and foremost working hard on their project, they are also considering the bigger picture. Their goal is not primarily to start their own car brand or a supply company, but they hope their findings will inspire major car manufacturers to ‘go green’ and spark a revolution in the automobile world.

To achieve this, the biobased approach needs a good business case. “Once sustainable becomes cheaper than non-sustainable, the ball will really start rolling quickly,” says Wouter. “The switch will then take only a few years, even in such a large and often conservative sector as the car industry. All that’s needed is a good business case from a single company, with good proof of concept, in order to set off a chain reaction.”

Snowball effect

The first of the student’s ideas that they expect to see in serial production cars are body parts made of flax fibre. Nicole comments, “These are biobased, lightweight and strong. And they won’t shatter on impact, like carbon does, for instance. The fibres keep the panel safely intact. This would mean a huge step forward.”

And when will they consider they own project to be a success? Ellen responds, “If we see new biobased solutions in product models five years from now. Whether or not they use our ideas or someone else’s doesn’t matter. My biggest hope is that this project will have a snowball effect that results in change. That would make me very proud.”

"This is not something of the far future, but this car may soon be a reality on the road."
NOAH IN FIGURES
 
Dimensions:                           2.80 x 1.60 x 1.50 m
Seats:                                     2
Bodywork:                              Chassis and body made of flax fibre
Drive:                                      rear wheel, 2 electric motors
Batteries:                               6 lithium-ion in cassettes
Kerb weight, including batteries:      320 kg
Battery voltage/capacity:       48V/222 Ah
Engine power:                        15 kW
Torque:                                   42 Nm
Top speed:                              100 km/h
Action radius:                         240 km