Peace Obi, who was at the UNILAG 2016 Convocation Exhibition came across some talented, zealous and creative students of the institution who have a vision to build automobiles that can serve today’s and future generations’ demands to meet the changing ecosystem

The University of Lagos 2016 Convocation Exhibition booth for the Engineering Department turned out to be a speed limiting spot for most visitors. Standing out among others on the exhibition arena, were two vehicles under construction. Obviously too unique to be ignored, guests and visitors made a brief stopover to catch a glimpse of the structures as well as have a few words with the team behind the creation.

Though found in a university environment, which ought to be home of innovation and creativity, yet, people gazed at the structures with some kind of awe in their eyes. Although some others expressed their delight at the institution’s departure from theory-centered education to a practical presentation of theories and ideas by UNILAG students. To many at the exhibition site, the handiwork of the students was actually saying, “Trust us, we can do even better, if given the opportunity, support and enabling environment. Nigeria does not necessarily have to depend on other countries for her automobiles and many of such things she spends her hard earned foreign exchange on. Trust us, we can fly, if given the wing and we really can go far. All we ask is a helping hand.”

To the observers, it was once again, a confirmation to the fact that Nigeria has in her youth population, what it takes to remain great among the comity of nations. Thus, pointing to the need for all stakeholders at different levels and sectors to step up their commitment to manpower development, capacity building as part of the deliberate efforts in ploughing back into the Nigeria economy for recovery and growth.

Inspired by Shell Eco-Marathon Competition
To the students, what was on display, was but one out of their numerous brilliant, creative and innovative designs begging for expression. And this might not be any difference from what is obtainable in similar departments in various tertiary institutions across the country.

Speaking with a member of the team, Mr. Qudus Adegbuji, a 500 level student of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, he gave the name of the team behind the car construction as ‘Shell Eco-Marathon Team UNILAG. Adegbuji noted that while the cars are displayed on the Engineering Department’s booth, members of the team are drawn from different departments like creative Art, Mechanical Engineering, Metallurgy and Materials Engineering, Electrical/Electronics Engineering, Economics, Chemical Engineering, Law, among others.

According to Adegbuji, the team came into being as a response to a competition organised by Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) in 2012 that required students to build fuel efficiency car. “We were inspired by a competition organised by SPDC called ‘Shell Eco-Marathon’. The aim was for students to design energy efficiency cars. So that was what led to forming the team and what we have here today. This is our second car, we have the first one. We are working on this at the moment, the Urban Concept. And we still have some designs we need to work on and exhibit.

Enumerating some of the benefits of a fuel efficient vehicle, Adegbuji noted that it would be useful in any part of the world. And that Nigerians would find it helpful as it reduces the cost of fuel to the barest minimum. “The fuel efficient car will be very useful here in Nigeria because a litre of fuel now sells for N145. And if this comes on the road, with barely N100 fuel, you can actually get to Ibadan. So with cars of this nature, you can be sure of saving cost of fuel because it does not consume fuel like others.”

Boasts to make Nigeria self-sufficient in automobiles
Speaking further Adegbuji enthused that “If government can provide the necessary equipment, we can produce more because we have the human resources. And for the materials, we used fibre glass, it is not manufactured here in Nigeria. Though we bought it from the local market here but we don’t produce it here, they are imported. The motor controller is also not made here. So, if we have all these materials made available here, a lot can be achieved. Our team got this done within six months, with a rough cost estimate of N1.2m,” he said.

Autonov 3 and the Urban Concept
Explaining further on the two different concepts on display, another member of the team and a final year student of Metallurgy and Materials Engineering, Mr. Reuben Akande, said that the Autonov 3 is a prototype vehicle. According to him, it is a futuristic kind of vehicle. “It is the sports car kind of concept. It is a one-seater, three-tyre vehicle that runs on battery-electric. It runs on 120.1KM/KWh; that is like traveling from Lagos to Ibadan on N12.54 worth of electricity.”

In preparation for the 2017 competition and in way that suggests the team is never in lack of creative and innovative ideas, they came up with the Auto Deluxe or Urban Concept. Noting that the urban concept is a design of a normal car, Akande said that it was going to run on IC engine – Internal Combustion engine; four tyres like any normal car, with doors. And that it is also going to have telemetry system like radio, navigation system, among others. “The Shell competition actually challenged students to build energy efficient cars. When we set out for the competition, our main objective was to build a car that will have zero emission of gas. And so, for our first car, we went for an electrical battery. After working on the prototype for two years, we now want to work on an Urban Concept, that is the common car you see outside there,” he explained.

A new concept for Nigeria and the world
Speaking further Akande hinted, “After our success in building this car, we want to do a synergy of both concepts, that is a car that has near zero emission but with components of an urban car that can be used on Nigerian roads. I think if we are able to achieve that, we will be able to reduce the level of pollution in Nigerian environment and also build economical cars that will meet the needs of our people. At the moment we are working on the prototype and if we succeed, we may ask the industry to produce it en mass for us because the prototype is usually more expensive.”

Stressing how the oil company spurred them into a journey of no looking back, Akande explained, “When we started the competition, SPDC was sponsoring us. They gave us the fund we worked with and even in traveling for the competition. They stirred up the zeal in us through the competition but right now, we don’t have their sponsorship rather we are being sponsored by our school. But that is not enough. We need sponsorships from corporate organisations and well meaning Nigerians.

“Like when we went to South Africa, in a stand for a team, you can see about five logos of different companies, showing the various organisations they have their support and sponsorship. Those ones have both financial and technical support. For us to go far in this project, we really need support from individuals, corporate organisations and government, but more importantly from the industries. The gap between the industry and the university is so wide. In fact, if there can be a go between industry and the university, I think it will really help engineering students,” he noted.

Encouraging students to actually experience engineering
And for another final year student, Metallurgy and Materials Engineering, Mr. Emmanuel Chukwuma, it is his team’s desire to sustain the vision as well as the project. For this team member, part of what will give him joy even after leaving UNILAG would be seeing Shell Eco-Marathon Team UNILAG continue with greater achievements. According to him, “we want this project to be an avenue for engineering students to actually experience engineering because this project has been able to train us, the engineering students in project management, product development, process evaluation. With this, we have been able to plan, design, build and run.

“So, because we have been able to actualise this, we do not want this competition to die. And that is why we are appealing to well-meaning individuals, corporate organisations and even the government to support us in any way they can. For example, we want to reduce the car’s weight in terms of increasing the energy efficiency, we need fibre, which is a very innovative material used in energy efficient cars today. So, we need both financial and material support like carbon, fibre, fabrication, machining, technical assistance, even moral support and any form of support is very much welcomed,” he stressed.

Engineering as future of every country
Caught up by the power of vision, Chukwuma disclosed that given the knowledge acquired from the project and the possibilities of birthing newer discoveries, there is no looking back. And that even after handing over the baton to their successors, they would want the Shell Eco-Marathon Team UNILAG continue to lift the institution’s flag high. “This project has been able to imbibe energy efficiency in us, the young engineers. That was the aim of the competition when it started. We competed with other universities in Netherlands, 2014 and South Africa in 2015.

“Due to financial constraints, we are shaky in terms of delivering the project for future competitions. So, that is why we are also appealing for sponsorship because much depends on the sponsorship we can get. And for us as a team, we are not relenting. We want to do an all out energy efficiency phase. There are a lot of opportunities in renewable energy, there are a lot of opportunities in energy efficiency from biomass to alternative fuel for combustion engines, for IC engines and for different things. We are looking at all of these.”

In his appeal, Chukwuma said, “Please support engineering discipline because engineering is the future of every country. Support young people and support the competition. The competition is an annual event, this year’s competition will hold in South Africa in October. We are also getting ready. Like now, we are done with the design phase, the implementation phase has also started where we have the frame work and the body work, we also have an engine but the seat, the telemetry unit, ECU, injection system, we need more support to complete the work,” Chukwuma appealed.

According to the Coordinator of the team, Professor Ike Mowete, the concept of fuel efficiency is always a welcomed one. Adding that it does not only reduce ones fuel bill, it also helps control pollution. In his words, Mowete said, “It is something that would always be considered useful. Experience tells us that if given the wings the youths can actually fly. We may not get results overnight but history tells us that if we are patient enough, we will always get results. If we invest in research, especially with the younger ones – they are very adventurous, we will always get results with right guidance.”

UNILAG management behind the team
And as part of the ways to keep the students’ adventurous spirit alive, the university don said, “We will keep inviting ideas from them. We will always encourage them to participate in such international competitions where they meet youths from different parts of the world so that they can see that they have the same skin as these ones and that the difference is just the environmental set up. Such opportunity boosts their confidence. One of our students that went to Netherlands found out that whereas some teams from Europe couldn’t get on track, but we from Africa, first timers for that matter were able to get on track.”

Disclosing his confidence in UNILAG’s preparedness to nurture yet more great scientists and engineers that would impact the society greatly, he said that the institution has been renowned for its enviable products making waves in different sectors and in different parts of the world. And describing himself as an incurable optimist, Mowete said that, “of course, from past experience, I have been teaching for close to 40 years, I know we have the potential, it is just a matter of how to harness them.”

Our challenges and call for sponsorship
Speaking further, Mowete noted that the Eco-Marathon is an annual event that holds in Europe and Africa that requires students to build the best car in fuel efficiency – that can go the most miles with the least volume of fuel. “When we started, we had funding support from SPDC and Joint Ventures Partner. But when the economy took a downturn, they couldn’t continue but we like the idea and we are very impressive of what our students could do and we have resolved to continue with the competition.”

The team, left with its school management as the major sponsor, Mowete said that the support from the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Rahmon Bello has been tremendous. And that but for visa difficulty, that hindered the team’s participation in 2016 edition, the VC actually provided the team with transport and logistics expenses. “Our Vice-Chancellor has been very supportive. He is particularly interested in the project. And you know he is a Chemical Engineer, that explains why he is interested in our various ventures. Beyond that, it is very fulfilling to find young men and women of talent building something from the scratch, from the drawing board to hardware.

We feel very impressed and is very gratifying,” he said.
Enumerating some of the team’s challenges, he said, “the students of course have to combine working on the car with their academic responsibilities, that has not been easy but they are enthusiastic. The car displayed during the convocation exhibition is about 75 per cent built up and we hope to enter it for the competition in Johannesburg in October. We have just a few promises of funding support. The promises have not been fulfilled. We are hoping to get more funding support.

“We have already registered to participate in Johannesburg event in October and we are hopeful to get enough funding to complete the car so we can enter it. For every competition, we build a new car because quite many of them would have graduated, so we bring in new students every year. We try to catch them as early as possible so that those who show interest and are enthusiastic will remain with the team,” Mowete said.