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A new chapter in the history of Israeli innovation may have begun two weeks ago in Beersheba, when a race car named the "Spirit of Ben-Gurion" took its maiden drive through the campus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Created by a team of mechanical engineering students, "Spirit" is Israel's first formula student automotive engineering (FSAE) race car - the only one ever designed, built and engineered for international competition.
The real test will come next May, when it will compete against similar vehicles from 120 colleges and universities worldwide.
Why would a university build a race car?
"The car itself is just the byproduct," says Gideon Goldwine who, together with co-project leader Yaroslav Tenzer, dreamed up the idea. "It's really a competition over engineering standards, demonstrated by producing a race car. The cars race, but they they're also judged on engineering, safety, cost, performance and marketability."
Design it, build it, race it FSAE competitions date back to 1981 and are held at a different international site every year. Overall, Cornell University of Ithaca, New York, and the University of Texas at Arlington have been the biggest winners, with nine and eight wins, respectively. In 2006, RMIT University of Melbourne, Australia, won. But when the "Spirit of Ben-Gurion" is packed into a shipping crate and flown to the Ford Proving Grounds at Romeo, Michigan, next May, it will set new standards.
The first entry from Israel is uniquely Israeli: The car is fabricated almost entirely of Dead Sea magnesium.
Goldwine came up with the idea of building a race car three years ago.
"Gidi told Eran Sher, our professor, that he wanted to design and build a car as his PhD project," recounts Tenzer. "Eran just laughed and said, 'You're nuts,' but Gidi kept pushing. About a year later, Eran telephoned to say that he had found some financing for the project. We were ecstatic."
It was still an unlikely idea.
"It wasn't just Eran - everybody thought we were crazy," says Goldwine. "The only car ever made in Israel was the fiberglass Susita about 40 years ago, which became a joke. So when we started, we had zero expertise and no literature."
The students' first believer was GM-UMIT, a General Motors unit dedicated to nurturing new technologies. When GM-UMIT offered seed financing, Goldwine and Tenzer got to work.
"We went to [the virtual bookstore] Amazon looking for books - anything that would offer some guidance. Of course, we didn't know which books were good and which weren't, but we took some chances and collected a little library," Tenzer says.
They also began recruiting a team via campus bulletin boards. For the first year, they picked 12 volunteers, who invested tens of thousands of hours. The 11 men and one woman, all from the university's mechanical engineering department, split into subgroups specializing in suspension, chassis, engine, transmission, brakes, wheels and tires, electric and steering. Each group set out to learn everything they could, from any source they could find.
"Not much was available locally because no one in Israel builds cars. We were really on our own," says Goldwine.
Despite their lack of expertise, the project created excitement from the outset. "The students loved it - sometimes they loved it more than their classes," says Goldwine. "All week long everyone worked on their own segment, then on Monday nights we'd meet and each team would present their ideas. We worked together on problems, saw what needed to be changed, what could be improved and what didn't work."
There were conflicts, notes Tenzer with a laugh. "Everybody had a different idea on how it should be done. Sometimes we just tossed a coin. Why not? No one knew for sure what was best."
By the end of the first year, they built a prototype.
"It was made of steel, like other cars. As word of our project got around, we picked up new sponsors," Goldwine recounts. "Two Israeli companies - DSM (Dead Sea Magnesium, Ltd.) and ALUBIN, a manufacturing firm - offered help, and we changed our design. Instead of using steel like everyone else, we decided to fabricate most of the car from magnesium alloy. It's important to us that our project benefits industry in Israel as much as possible, and Israel is a prime source of magnesium. The redesign made perfect sense, as it makes the car lighter. There were initial worries about its being too flammable, but we did a million tests and couldn't see that magnesium burned more easily than anything else."
In the second year, 14 students built the car, now using Dead Sea magnesium.
"The car is an all-Israel project, as much as we can make it," proclaims Goldwine.
The seat is the same design used in Israeli helicopters. Kiryat Gat-based polymer manufacturers Orycle Applications, Ltd. developed special polymers to use in the crash zone. The group now has 10 sponsors, who help with aspects such as adhesives, fiberglass, parts manufacturing and strength analysis.
The car was first unveiled in April's Automotor 2006' at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds, the largest trade exhibition ever held in Israel. The first test drive coincided with BGU's Project Day on June 14.
"We took it out for a test run at 4 a.m. the previous night," says Goldwine. "We had to make sure it ran before we tried it in front of everyone. It ran great - just fabulous. It was an unforgettable night."
The sporty little bright blue race car weighs about 250 kg, including the driver. It has a Suzuki GSX-R600 engine, uses regular unleaded gasoline and reaches speeds of about 150 km/hour.
"We don't really know how fast it will go and haven't calculated the gas mileage yet," says Tenzer. "We've been driving it around the campus, drawing lots of attention and admiration. But we don't have a license for it, so we're having a little trouble with the campus police."
The big test will come in Michigan in May.
"We plan to take it to the FSAE competition but still don"t have the funding to finish. We will spend the year testing and improving everything, but some specific tools and testing programs are too expensive to buy. This was entirely a team project. No one was more important than anyone else. So if we can't find a way for all 14 team members to go, probably none of us will," says Tenzer.
Goldwine points out that the project is more than just a race car.
"It's a multidisciplinary engineering project with elements of chemistry, materials, electronics, physics and other disciplines. But beyond that, we want to promote Israeli industry. It's great to have a successful computer base here, but we need an engineering base, too. With computers, you help a small number of people to live very well. With an industrial base, you help a huge number to live better."
For Goldwine, who was born 32 years ago when his parents were emissaries in Sweden and is now in the third year of his PhD program, there's an even larger goal.
"An automotive industry in Israel? Maybe, but hi-tech companies like Intel and Cisco are already here, utilizing Jewish minds and resources. There's no reason why some elements of automobile manufacture can't thrive here, too."
Moscow-born Tenzer, 27, who's in the first year of his PhD program, says that the name "Spirit of Ben-Gurion" says it all.
"Ben-Gurion was an innovator with courage and chutzpah. Back in the 1940s he said he wanted a great university in Beersheba, and they laughed at that, too. Now look - BGU is respected all over the world for the way it serves as a bridge between academia and industry. There's no reason why our project can't be the start of great things, too."