To compete in the around-the-world Zero Race, a race designed to raise awareness for renewable energy, a vehicle must be able to travel substantial distances at road-worthy speeds propelled only by an electric motor. To do that, the vehicle must be extremely lightweight, meaning design teams often use seemingly unorthodox materials to build their cars. The team at the University of South Australia (one of four in the race) turned to Perth, Australia-based Ayres for its lightweight composite panels to use in its car, a two-seater vehicle named Trev.
Everything about the Trev is designed to increase fuel efficiency. A three-wheeled layout with the passenger seat directly behind the driver increases aerodynamics. The single rear wheel simplifies suspension and transmission while reducing weight. The lithium polymer battery and electric motor give the vehicle the 155-mile range and 50-mile-per-hour speeds required for the Zero Race.
Ayrlite composite panels from Ayres, used primarily to fit out the interiors of high-performance marine vessels, feature a hardened aluminum honeycomb core with aluminum, decorative laminate or fiberglass faces. The panels meet fire safety and smoke toxicity standards and are up to 75 percent lighter than conventional materials used such as plywood, according to Ayres’ International Marketing Manager Wayne Beaton. They are also fully recyclable.
The Trev team chose the fiberglass-faced Ayres panels because although they are lightweight, they are also extremely strong and easy to work with using normal hand and power tools—important for a do-it-yourself team building a car in a university workshop. The team cut and folded the panels to create a rigid skeleton for the vehicle, including the floorboard and side and front panels. The completed tub weighed about 70 pounds and used five Ayrelite panels, which retail at approximately $435 each. According to Beaton, the panels are also used in high-end racecars because of their impact resistant qualities: all V8 supercars (the Australian version of NASCAR) must have a two-inch Ayrelite honeycomb panel in the driver’s door.
Once the skeleton was complete, the Trev team added expanded polystyrene blocks, then carved them to form the aerodynamic shape needed to maximize the efficiency of the vehicle. Expanding polyurethane spray foam was used to smooth out the shape. The whole car, weighing approximately 120 pounds, was covered in fiberglass and painted.
According to Beaton, the Trev, and vehicles like it, are stretching the possibilities for composite panels. Ayres’ has traditionally focused on marine vessels, he says, but, “we see most of our growth coming from outside the marine industry.” The company has been exploring the use of its panels as a substrate for photovoltaic panels, since it would lessen the weight and thus the structural requirements for rooftop installations. It has also been developing a lightweight acoustic panel in addition to its line of honeycomb panels.