High Voltage, High Ambition

TTXGP Photo Library/Alex Tang/Laguna Seca

With a bigger, faster bike, Virginia Tech students aim for the electric-motorcycle world championships.

Goodbye, roaring thunder. The new sound of power in motorcycle racing is the high-pitched whine of an electric motor. An infant sport just a few years ago, electric motorcycle racing now boasts competitions on three continents, speeds up to 170 mph, professional riders, and big-name sponsors. Virginia Tech undergraduates are in this heady game to win . . . Oh – and complete a senior design project.

This year, the students’ BOLT (for Battery Operated Land Transportation) cycle competed in three races held in the TTXGrand Prix series, winning each time in the 7.5 kilowatt-per-hour class and reaching a top speed of close to 100 mph.

For 2013, they’re aiming higher. BOLT’s converted Honda CBR600RR, weighing 380 pounds, will be replaced by a 500-pound Suzuki GSXR and compete in the Grand Prix class against the fastest bikes entered by manufacturers.

“What we would like is to hit upwards of 160 mph,” and go from 0 to 60 in three seconds, says John Marshall of Round Hill, Va. He leads a team of 15 mechanical engineering seniors and seven “volunteer” sophomores and juniors, who include majors in electrical engineering, computer science, and business management.

An offshoot of the International Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) Race, the Time Trial Xtreme (TTX) Grand Prix is the brainchild of British software entrepreneur Azhar Hossain, an electric vehicle enthusiast who says, “Nothing drives innovation like competition.”

Apart from the basic manufactured chassis, students are involved in just about every aspect of the bike. They work with Kollmorgen on a drive/motor/gearing system “almost completely customized to our needs,” Marshall says. They design the configuration of the battery pack. While they now use lithium-polymer batteries, the team continually researches new battery technology. Zinc-air shows promise. “Batteries are where advances could be made,” Marshall says.

In building the new bike, they’re thinking of replacing their 2012 stock wheels with magnesium and are redesigning the rear-wheel sprocket to overcome aerodynamic drag.

The students also seek out sponsors and raise money. Materials alone for the 2012 bike cost $50,000. Racing – and transporting the team and cycle to race tracks in California – added another $25,000.

Adviser Saied Taheri, associate professor of mechanical engineering, says, “The BOLT Project has provided the students with the opportunity to learn, in addition to the engineering aspects of the project, how to promote green technology and awareness of the negative impact an internal combustion engine has on the environment.” Taheri directs Virginia Tech’s Center for Tire Research.

One thing the students haven’t done is ride their cycle in a race. For that, they’re relying on a pro, Matt Kent, an engineer and test rider at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. With him, team members feel they have a shot at the world championships, which they didn’t attempt in 2012. “Last year’s bike went above and beyond the design – what it was expected to do,” says Marshall. “It was able to out-handle other bikes.”

Their aim is to achieve parity with, and eventually surpass, motorcycles powered by internal combustion.

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