They’re ubiquitous on the streets of Asia and Africa — three-wheeled auto rickshaws best known by the sound of their puttering two-stroke gasoline engines: tuk-tuk. If Sasiranga De Silva gets his way, the name will remain, but the sound will be replaced by an electric hum.
In March, the Sri Lankan engineer won a $10,000 United Nations grant to develop his idea of an affordable electric drive-train for the vehicles mostly used as common taxis. The switch to an electric motor powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery could eliminate gasoline emissions from 1 million vehicles on De Silva’s island nation of 21 million people.
The dapper, stylish De Silva, 32, who teaches at the University of Moratuwa near the capital Colombo, is now working on fine-tuning the conversion kit and hopes to take it to market soon. Tuk-tuks play a vital role in urban Sri Lanka’s passenger transport system, providing what traffic experts call “last mile” service. Police and government workers rely on them too to navigate congested streets. In rural Sri Lanka, they are everything from taxi to ambulance.
All of Sri Lanka’s tuk-tuks are imported from India or assembled in Sri Lanka from kits. The government has banned the import of two-stroke gasoline engines since 2008, owing to emissions concerns. Now the country leads the way with the lowest pollution scores in South Asia. In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, most tuk-tuks are being converted to run on compressed natural gas to reduce emissions.
Among the many barriers to De Silva’s solution is the cost of conversion, expected to be around $2,200 per vehicle. A new gasoline-powered tuk-tuk costs around $4,300, while a new all-electric three-wheeler imported from China is being marketed at $5,900. De Silva says his innovation is designed for longtime owners who have already paid off part of the cost of their three-wheeler, and it will save money in the long run with lower maintenance and fuel costs — particularly with electricity rates lower overnight, when the vehicles would charge.
De Silva has won competitions to be among the top amateur salsa dancers in Sri Lanka.
A.D. Alwis, who leads the 200,000-member National Joint Three-Wheel Drivers Association, backs electric tuk-tuks in theory. But he points out that imported electric tuk-tuks have failed to catch on because there are very few charging stations, and vehicles will require a charge around every 100 kilometers. “We think this is a good idea if the infrastructure is there and charging points for the batteries become as common as petrol stations,” he says.
De Silva expects Sri Lanka’s cities will be “well-covered” with charging stations in the next couple of years, but he admits progress has been slow so far. His team had done an informal survey of the tuk-tuks operating in Colombo and found that they run around 100–120 kilometers a day, about one full charge.
The research grant has helped De Silva cover his costs as he burns through controllers and motors, while also making sure his retrofitted vehicles comply with government safety regulations. The next step? Marketing to three-wheel operators and convince them of the long-term savings and environmental benefits.
He is hoping for some help from the government, which has a “Green Mobility” campaign to reduce polluting vehicles. The finance ministry is providing low-interest loans to purchase new electric three-wheelers, and De Silva hopes the program can extend to his innovation. “I believe the government has an obligation to support ventures like mine,” he says. A finance ministry spokesman declined to comment directly on De Silva’s proposal.
Attorney Dharshana Wickrema Edirisuriya is confident that his lifelong friend will prevail because “he is hardworking, passionate and very bright.” It goes well beyond engineering. Edirisuriya recalls that De Silva even won an international award for child art in primary school, before earning scholarships for advanced studies. The son of a judge, De Silva grew up upper-middle-class, mostly in Colombo. He left Sri Lanka to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia.
Outside of work, De Silva has won amateur salsa dancing competitions in Sri Lanka. But he has stopped dancing competitively and only goes for fun occasionally. For fitness, he has taken up boxing, although he does not expect to compete. He has also shelved his plans to pursue a Ph.D. to concentrate on the all-consuming tuk-tuk project.
“This is my dream,” he says, “to make the earth greener and make Colombo the cleanest capital area in Asia.” And that’s a sweet sound to Sri Lankan ears.
Source: Photograph by Edwin Remsberg/Getty
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