24 May 2018

Gentleman and ladies, start your – solar powered – engines!

Written by Jim Pierobon

While race car enthusiasts focus on this weekend’s Indianapolis 500 and the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix, students from about 30 college teams throughout the world are making final preparations for this summer’s American Solar Challenge and its Formula Sun Grand Prix starting in Nebraska.

The Solar Challenge is run by the Innovators Educational Foundation. It stands to be the most demanding – and rewarding – event since the earliest U.S. version of the competition launched in 1990 under the name, “Sunrayce.”

The U.S. Department of Energy organized the event and supported it financially with funds from GM and Toyota, among others, through the 1990s. It was rebranded by Dan Eberle, a founding board member of the Foundation, as the American Solar Challenge in 2001, according to race director Gail Lueck.

While the official prize will be a trophy for each event, along with bragging rights, contestants’ efforts already are paying dividends for how team members are gaining practical skills in harnessing solar energy, aerodynamic designs and new-age materials to extend the speed and reach of their vehicles.

Lueck said this year’s races will feature arrays that are smaller than in previous years to emphasize the teams’ need to maximize the electricity their vehicles generate. Also this year there will be two classes of vehicles: single-occupant and multi-occupant vehicles, the latter with space for cargo.

Perhaps the most challenging feature of this year’s Challenge, which runs from July 14-22, several team leaders agreed, is a new, 1,780-mile, route from Omaha, Nebraska to Bend, Oregon. It includes a 3,000-foot elevation climb in the Rocky Mountains. The team with the lowest overall elapsed time through five stages will be crowed the winner. See the route.

The American Solar Challenge’s 1,780-mile cross-country route begins in Omaha, NE and finishes in Bend, OR. It features an elevvation climb of about 3,000 feet. CREDIT: Missouri Unversity of Science & Technology.

“It will be a battle to maintain the battery pack’s state of charge while expending lots of energy driving up hills,” said William Lorey, a member of solar car team at Missouri University Science & Technology.  “The track race will offer different challenges, such as further verifying on-board systems and making it through the ‘scrutineering’ process” used to qualify participants.

“We are excited to bring the event to new communities that likely have not previously seen a solar-powered vehicle,” Lueck said. “This will also be the first time we’ve used the Motorsport Park Hasting track in Omaha (for the sister race, the Sun Grand Prix).”

The winner of the Sun Grand Prix, on July 10-12, will be determined by the total number of laps completed on the track over three days of racing.

As in previous years, contestants will be up against a previously dominant entry, from the School of Engineering at the University of Michigan. Since 1990, Michigan has claimed six of these consecutive national championships and nine overall. It has finished in the top three on six occasions and has one international championship to its credit.

The 2018 entry by the University of Michigan to the 2018 American Solar Challenge cross-country race. CREDIT: University of Michigan’s solar car team

Abby Siegal, a member of Michigan’s team and a rising senior majoring in economics, said this team has the backing of $1.2 million in cash donations and in-kind support from lead sponsors such as Eaton, Siemens, Ford, GM and Imra.

As the defending ‘champion’ from the previous race in 2016, Michigan’s 2018 entry, named ‘NOVUM” (photo), will feature a more aerodynamic design from previous races and some of the latest advances in solar panel technology with called multi-junction, gallium arsenide solar cells.

In addition to teams from colleges in the U.S., institutions from Australia, Canada, Italy and Puerto Rico will try to qualify and race their vehicles. In order to officially enter both races, teams must meet specific criteria.

Seeing how the competition was heating up this spring, and with equipment donations of $120,000 from individuals and two local solar developers, a team at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville worked feverishly to prepare its Sun Grand Prix entry. But when the team realized this month its entry wouldn’t meet its own standards to compete, much less have a chance to qualify, team leader Arslan Aziz said they opted out of the Sun Grand Prix to focus on completing the car before entering a future race.






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