Tuesday, August 5, 2008

KERS: The Technology

Formula 1 has traditionally been a showcase of the latest and greatest technology. Carbon fiber has been commonplace in the sport now for more than a decade. Traction control has been utilized by the teams up until this year. Computerized fluid dynamics machines have been installed in the headquarters of almost all the manufacturers. Turbos were even used at one point. KERS is different - finally some leading edge technology is making it from the road to the grid.

KERS stands for Kinetic Energy Recovery System and is very simple in principle. But, as with everything implemented in Formula 1, it will be engineered within a hair of its tolerances to provide maximum performance with the least amount of weight.

Even though there has been a lot of talk about the technology as of late, many fans don't understand how it works or even what it is.

In a nutshell, KERS is a regenerative braking system that will allow the cars to recover some of the energy that was usually lost as heat and store it for later use. That later use part is the key defining property of this system; it will be used when the driver pushes a button on the steering wheel, almost like the Turbo Boost feature on Michael Knight's KITT. Though, the technology may seem like it is something out of a badly acted primetime sci-fi drama, it's for the most part already being used on everyday automobiles.

Capturing the energy is quite simple, with generators being installed in the wheels that resist turning and provide power instead. The main problem is how to store this energy and then make it available for use later on. Two of the options that are currently known are storing energy in batteries or in a flywheel.

Flywheel based KERS seems to be the lesser popular of the two options, with only Williams, Honda, and Toyota rumoured to be developing it for their cars. In the case of the flywheel, energy captured from the wheels is used to power the spinning disc to an estimated 50,000RPM. When the driver wants to use this energy, a system of clutches engages with the flywheel and sends all this extra kinetic energy through the drivetrain and into the wheels, effectively increasing the amount of power being put to the ground.

The second option, battery based KERS, is the system of choice so far. BMW is definitely committed to this option, as was evidenced last week when a mechanic touching one of the cars after a test run received a massive shock when he touched the chassis. Most of the other teams are expected to pick this type of KERS as well. The only difference between this and the flywheel type is the storage of the energy is done via battery. These batteries (along with the entire system) is thought to weigh around 25kg or more. Also, this system is what already exists on road cars today. The energy is recovered, stored in batteries, and, on the driver's command, the energy is sent to electric motors within the rear wheel hubs.

Both systems effectively have around the same performance due to FIA regulations mandating that they only be able to recover 60kW of energy from a single axle on the car and release only 400kJ of energy per lap. This equals to around an extra 80 horsepower being sent to the wheels for duration of 7 seconds per lap.

But, is this all safe? What are the ramifications of this technology? Why are they implementing it now? And how is the FIA going to keep tabs on all this? Check back throughout the week for more insight on KERS and what it means for Formula 1.


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