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Velomobiles Take A Spin Around Campus

This summer, Dr. Brad Christensen and students Noah McGraw, Christopher Dueker, and George Shea began exploring energy efficient alternatives for commuting to work. Their research led them to discover velomobiles, a type of pedal car.

Photographs courtesy of Damian Buttle

The engineers researched sustainable vehicle options and avoided gas-powered vehicles. Their ultimate goal was to design a lightweight vehicle built with little expense, but appropriate for traveling to and from work. They built and designed four different, but similar vehicles: two single-seat designs, one vehicle with two-seats and one with three-seats.

The students began with the question, “Why are people not riding their bikes to work?” They discovered various answers such as, “It is too slow,” and “One becomes hot and sweaty by the time he reaches his work place.” The group looked for answers to these and other difficulties. While investigating the subject, the students discovered alternative vehicles designed for speed rather than for the comfort and safety of the commuter. However, one particular design caught their eye, a velomobile, a pedal car, with power assist. They began working to construct their very own velomobile. Each student worked on his own plan and ideas. All projects were similar in that each student is constructing pedal powered vehicles with electric assist. Legal classification puts these vehicles in the category of moped.

To keep costs low, the designers used salvaged bike parts, a frame consisting of metal piping, and two electric scooter motors rather than a hub motor. The final design consists of a thermoplastic exterior to combat wind resistance. After doing a bit of math, the group decided the vehicles they were making needed to travel on level roads at twenty-two miles per hour with one person pedaling without the assistance of the motor.

Development on the project is still underway. Progress will slow since the students have returned to class and labor. During development, the young engineers encountered problems in design and construction such as handle bar placement, seating, and placement of the mechanical parts. Weight was a critical factor in the development of this project. More weight requires more materials to make the vehicle stronger. The larger amount of materials will make the vehicle heavier. The pedals also became a problem during construction. Movement of the feet and knees, and the location of the chain are all very important aspects of a velomobile. Further development in a linear design is required as opposed to the circular motion of traditional bicycles. The students also need to design a good body formation. The students hope to create a lightweight, but strong exterior. The group would prefer recycled thermoplastic as opposed to the traditional fiberglass. However, Dr. Christensen’s students did not have enough time or materials to construct an exterior.

Now, it may be possible for the group to continue their work. The ecological sustainability education department selected and awarded Dr. Christensen a $1,000 ESE Sustainability Research Mini-Grant. The purpose of the ESE mini-grant is to provide financial support for research related to the practice or teaching of sustainability here at Berea College. Dr. Christensen and his students will be using the grant to continue research and to improve the vehicles on which they have been working.

Dr. Christensen and his students are hoping to produce these vehicles on a larger scale. The students would like to introduce a labor program for Berea College and sell the one- and two-seat vehicle designs. If everything were to run smoothly, faculty and staff will test a few vehicles before Dr. Christensen and his students make any final plans for production. Dr. Christensen is working with Peter Hackbert, co-director of the Entrepreneurship of Public Good program at Berea College. The students are also looking to sell their designs for high school laboratory productions.

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