Students Race for Solar0

Laurie Stark | Tue Dec 13 2011 |

Since 1934, children between the ages of seven and 17 have gathered in Akron, Ohio for the All-American Soap Box Derby (AASBD)—a youth program where students build and race soap box cars that are propelled by gravity and require no fuel or electricity.

More than 75 years after the initial conception, the goal of the derby remains the same: to teach young people the basic skills of workmanship, competition, and perseverance.

Although the derby has yet to include solar racers in their lineup, similar youth races like the Winston Solar Car Race have cropped up to prove that solar can deliver significant speed.

World solar challenge

For older students, the World Solar Challenge is the granddaddy of solar races. Every two years, college students and corporate sponsors from around the world meet in Australia for a 3,000 kilometer (approximately 1,864 miles) race from Darwin to Adelaide.

The race was started by Australian adventurer Hans Thostrup—who in 1983 drove 4,000 kilometers in the first completely solar-powered car.

This year’s World Solar Challenge was fraught with brush fires and dust devils that limited visibility and in some cases even forced cars off the road. Of the race’s 37 participants, only seven managed to finish, including first place winner Tokai University who boasted an average speed of 100 km/hr, and second place’s Nuon—a corporate team from the Netherlands.

There’s a lot of time that needs to be put into a solar car team and that means maybe spending less time on, you know, classes.

The University of Michigan team—UMsolar—took third place and was the first American car to cross the finish line.  Although the illustrious team, which boasts alumni like Google founder Larry Page, has entered the World Solar Challenge eight times, they’ve never placed higher than third.

UMsolar’s 16 members take a semester off from their studies to participate in the race.

“There’s a lot of time that needs to be put into a solar car team and that means maybe spending less time on, you know, classes,” says driver Troy Halm, a junior in the College of Engineering. He laughs. “But it’s worth it because the more you put into a solar car the more you get out of it.”

A global perspective

Teams enter the race from all over the world with students from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and with a variety of long-term goals.

Dhirajj Misram, a third year student from Delhi Technological University in New Delhi, India says his team has more practical plans for its solar car. “With petrol prices rising, it is time to focus on alternatives,” he says. “Our next venture will be a passenger car that can be produced on a commercial scale.” His team is the first from India to participate in the race, and with a top speed of 85 km/hr, the team’s car is the fastest, most efficient solar car developed in India to date.

For this year’s World Solar Challenge, 20 students from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals built the first solar car in Saudi Arabia and the first solar car to be driven by students in the Arab world.

Building a better future

Another major race for solar is Shell Eco-marathon Americas which is held in the spring in various locations around the world. For the fourth year in a row, Purdue University was the big winner in the solar-powered UrbanConcept category—a selection of cars that have the potential to be sold commercially.

MacKenzie Sellers, a past president of Purdue Solar Racing, has since graduated and taken a job as at Rolls-Royce, where she works mostly with aerospace gas turbine engines. Sellers says her experience on the solar racing team prepared her for her career.

One thing many students seem to agree on is that their work on these teams prepares them for a career in sustainable energy.

“The team functions as a project team would in industry,” she said of her experience with Purdue Solar Racing. “We have a budget and schedule to design and build the vehicle. We perform testing, and we work with different disciplines to accomplish our goals.”

“It really gave me that leadership experience and a hands-on engineering experience. Many students don’t really get that sort of opportunity.”

One thing many students seem to agree on is that their work on these teams prepares them for a career in sustainable energy.

“If you get in the energy field,” says Drexel electrical engineering student Asaf Erlich, a participant in this year’s Shell Eco-marathon Americas, “eventually, you will be doing alternative energy. There’s no way around that.”

Illustration by Andrew Holder