When we think of race cars, we think enormous, growling gas guzzlers that chug tanks of gas and let out a mighty belch like they just enjoyed a beer. We think of high speeds, sharp turns and little respect for anything aside from cars and sportsmanship. But it turns out racing vehicles, specifically F1 cars, may have developed a crucial technology that will turn any vehicle into a far more fuel efficient one in a cheap and simple manner.
How? It starts with a technology that predates cars altogether: The flywheel.
What Is the Flywheel?
The flywheel is a fairly simple mechanical device. It’s a wheel that has a significantly high moment of inertia; essentially it’s a wheel that resists attempts to rotate it. You get it up to speed by applying torque to it and take it out by having the flywheel apply its energy to some other mechanism.
Flywheels are often used to keep the application of energy constant within a system, and as a result you often saw them in Victorian-era technology. There’s likely even some form of flywheel in your car right now, probably at the end of your crankshaft.
This is incredibly useful for F1 cars because, while braking, the flywheel can store the energy that would normally go to waste. Then, as the driver comes out of the brake, the flywheel transfers its energy to the actual wheels, meaning he gets more power for a short period of time and burns less gas doing it.
How Would It Translate to Cars on the Road?
Scaled to everyday cars, the flywheel yields a system that makes more use of the energy you get from burning fuel Flywheel systems are perfect for stop-and-go traffic because you use far less energy to … well … stop and go. In very slow traffic the flywheel can potentially take care of your propulsion needs without the engine running.
The money saved, meanwhile, can be dramatic. On some types of vehicles — like buses, for example — it’s estimated the fuel savings can run as high as 20%. Even your standard car can see double-digit percentages in fuel savings.
Even better, flywheel systems are comparatively cheap next to solutions such as hybrid vehicles. It’s a lot easier to install these system into existing cars than to turn an existing car into a hybrid.
So… why haven’t we been seeing flywheels installed in cars before now? The short answer is that materials science had to catch up to automaker ambitions. Flywheels tend to be heavy, and it wasn’t really feasible to install a system like this until they were made light enough to put in and tough enough to withstand the abuse. F1 cars have only been using flywheel systems since 2009.
But it looks like the technology is here to stay. Especially as governments demand cars pump out less emissions, anything that drives up fuel efficiency is seen as a good thing. Expect to see flywheel systems on many cars within a few years… and with the dramatic fuel savings to match.
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