Last week, while many Irish college students were enjoying their summer holidays and still sleeping in, three National University of Ireland (NUI) Maynooth lads were zooming towards the Channel Tunnel to Paris, smelling faintly of chip oil with a few hungry seagulls hovering overhead.
The destination was the Microsoft Imagine Cup 2008, where 124 other university teams were gathering to battle it out for top prize at the world’s largest student technology competition.
The reason Maynooth’s Team Acidrain had a faint aroma of the interior of a chippers was down to their entry into the competition. Team leader Brian Byrne’s car was fitted with a conversion engine designed by the three team members – arts student Byrne, along with electrical engineering student Aodhan Coffey and Karl O’Dwyer who studies computing.
While there already exists conversion kits for eco-fuelled cars, most of these require a second fuel tank running to the engine to switch over from diesel to plant-based oil, explains team leader Byrne, and these are quite expensive.
Byrne came up with the idea of an affordable conversion engine through necessity – driving to college each day, he was frustrated by rising fuel costs and thought there must be a way of running your car cheaply on plant-based oil.
The problem was it takes time to heat up the engine sufficiently to switch over and as Byrne’s college trip was short to begin with, the engine would not have had time to switch from diesel to plant oil by the time he reached his destination.
Searching for a solution to the problem, Byrne knew technology was the answer and pitched the idea to Tom Lysaght, a lecturer with the department of computer science at NUI Maynooth who head mentored last year’s entry to the Imagine Cup – InGest – which also made it to the finals.
Lysaght enlisted the help of O’Dywer and Coffey (whose identical twin brother Cathal was a team member of InGest) and Team Acidrain was born. Using a combination of eco-fuel and precision temperature relays with an automated fuel line, the problem was solved and a cost effective, zero-emission conversion engine was born.
Armed with gallons of sunflower oil supplied by Frylite and engine oil from Ecocar.ie, the team and their mentor Tom Lysaght made the road trip all the way from Maynooth to Paris to demonstrate the soundness of the technology.
As serendipity would have it, the engine performed perfectly while on the way over but the car itself hit a speed bump causing the axel to fracture and a flat battery delayed the return to Ireland. However, the Maynooth conversion engine kept on running on “enough Frylite to get to Paris and back with some left over for chips,” jokes Byrne.
The hype surrounding the team was unmistakeable – judges and other onlookers watched the engine in action in the way that only cool cars can arrest interest (just look at how popular Top Gear is!).
After several rounds of presentations to Imagine Cup judges, Ireland beat China, Korea, Poland and Ukraine to achieve second place. However, portents were good when the team made it into the final six with the judge exclaiming “You better know this one” by way of introduction, an indication of the buzz surrounding the optimised bio-fuel conversion engine.
“What this win highlights is the relevance of all disciplines – engineering, physics, arts, geography, economics and computer science, the mix of different academic backgrounds and how well they can work together,” says Lysaght.
“If you have a flair for electronics or gadgets, you can really bring these together and reach the world stage.”
While winning a competition in itself is great, what really piques the interest of youngsters when it comes to technology is the idea of entrepreneurship, monetising or building their own business from a really great tech idea, says Byrne.
Throughout their time at the Imagine Cup, the Maynooth team received interest from venture capitalists wanting to fund and further develop their technology: “People were continually asking us when this conversion engine would be on the market,” says Byrne.
Monetisation aside, the conversion engine fitted in with the overall theme of this year’s Imagine Cup, which was the environment.
While being cheaper to run than finite fuels, it produces zero emissions and as Byrne explained, it would be even cheaper to produce and run in the warmer climes of some developing nations: “Some of these countries would never have the winters of North America or Scandinavia. Some of our systems only come on in winter so that could mean developing a conversion kit for this type of climate for less than €100.”
However, when it comes to competing, this is not the end for team Acidrain. “We’re definitely entering next year. We have a few good ideas already!” says Byrne.
By Marie Boran
Pictured: Team Acidrain: Aodhan Coffey, Karl O’Dwyer and Brian Byrne with Paul Rellis, managing director of Microsoft Ireland