Have you ever wondered why there aren’t more vehicles on the market that are environmentally friendly and maxed-out with high-tech wizardry and hip design? Well, wonder no more. Eighteen-year-old Ben Gulak, of Milton, Ontario, is putting the “pedal-to-the-metal” to create just such a machine—an eco-bike with not only power, but a cool factor so high everyone will want to be seen riding it.
Inspired by a trip to China in 2006 where he saw firsthand what an explosion in automobile ownership and the resulting air-quality issues looked like, Ben created his innovative bike prototype, the Uno. “The entire time I was there, I didn’t see the sun once; the skies were perpetually covered in smog,” he recalls. Ben realized there was an urgent need to create small, personal, environmentally friendly vehicles that could offer more power and style than a bicycle or Segway.
Ben understood that for the Uno to really catch on as an eco-friendly road option, people had to envision themselves riding it. “They had to see the bike fitting into their existing lifestyles,” he explains. As a result, the Uno is a slick blend of form and function that brings together environmentally friendly electric power with the feel, if not the look, of a modern street bike. The motorized two-wheel prototype looks much like a unicycle with two wheels side-by-side, rather than front and back like a bicycle and will be able to go 60 kilometres an hour.
One of Ben’s most rewarding experiences, during the construction of the Uno, was to use of metal salvaged from his late grandfather’s last engineering project to create his own machine. An engineer with a flare for invention himself, “Opa” Werner Poss spent countless hours brainstorming and working on challenging science projects with Ben. “When I was younger, I used to do projects with him all the time, like making little wooden trains and that type of thing,” says Ben. ”Looking back, I guess I’ve always had an interest in eco-minded transportation technology.”
When Werner passed away in 2004, he willed his entire workshop to Ben. “Without his generosity, I wouldn’t have the resources available to continue my work,” explains Ben. “It really is a great legacy.”
Ben continues to honour his Opa by developing progressively more complicated and innovative projects such as the Uno, which uses a balancing technology as seen in the Segway. “Its design allows it to takes less space on the road,” says Ben. “It lends itself to a more intuitive driving experience than the average motorcycle.”
The Uno represents a creative balance between technological prowess and cool design. It’s hard to believe, but the completely electric Uno is powered by wheelchair motors. Ben’s challenge was to make 36-volt batteries work with motors designed only to handle 24 volts. Only then would the motors generate the horsepower needed to make the Uno a viable transportation option. The task wasn’t without its setbacks—his first three attempts caught on fire.
After the smoke cleared, Ben found help from Veltronics Ltd., an electrical engineering company in Brampton, Ontario, and designed the necessary circuitry to boost the horsepower of the motors by 40 percent—more than enough to get the Uno zipping along at speeds suitable for city driving. With additional support from Motorcycle Enhancements in Oakville, Ontario, which fabricated a fiberglass body for the bike, and research partner Jason Morrow, a Grade 12 student from Hamilton, Ontario, the first Uno prototype is now ready to hit the road. Ben and Jason, also 18, are two of Canada’s 16 brightest high-school scientists that were selected by Youth Science Foundation Canada to represent Canada at the 2007 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (IISEF) held in New Mexico this past May.
“His greatest strength in school was always his creativity, followed closely by his perseverance,” says Brad Legault, Ben’s computer science and mathematics instructor at Hillfield Strathallan College, in Hamilton, Ontario. “To Ben, there was never one right way of doing things, but rather various paths to achieve the ultimate goal.” Attracted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) philosophy of balancing theory with application, Ben applied to the school and made the waiting list.
On the off-chance he doesn’t get into MIT, Ben already has back-up plans in mind. “If I don’t get in this year, I’ll simply work on the Uno for another year and re-apply,” he asserts. “Who knows where this bike could go?” The same could be said about Ben.