University students power solar car to charge field of renewable energy research

by Cati Vanden Breul

Students in the University’s Solar Vehicle Project put in more than 43,000 hours of work to build Borealis III and were rewarded last month when their solar-powered car took second place out of 27 teams in the North American Solar Challenge.

The team finished in just more than 54 hours – approximately 11 minutes behind the University of Michigan – in a race that began July 17 in Austin, Texas, and came to an end 2,500 miles later July 27 in Calgary, Canada.

On Friday, the University’s team held an event to thank sponsors and show off the 370-pound car – which has traveled up to 77 mph with no power other than the sun’s rays – to fans and onlookers in front of the mechanical engineering building on campus.

“It’s basically a welcome home to team members, and a huge ‘thank you’ to our sponsors who gave us a lot of support,” said Al Majkrzak, recent University graduate and leader of the car’s mechanical-design team.

The team received monetary and material support from more than 60 corporate and University partners and only had to come up with approximately $100,000 in additional funds, Majkrzak said.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak was at the event to congratulate and thank the team of 46 undergraduates for their contribution to Minnesota and the field of renewable-energy research.

It’s more important than ever to lessen dependence on oil and find alternate sources of energy, Rybak said, and the University is right on the edge of innovation because of students who donate their time to research efforts on campus.

University students have been donating their time to the art of solar-vehicle design since 1990, when the first team was established.

“We recruit a new team and build a new car every two years,” said Majkrzak, who joined the team his first year at the University.

The team is made up primarily of engineering or physics students, but anyone with the “drive or passion” is welcome, he said. Majkrzak estimated he spent 20 hours a week working on the car in addition to completing his homework, which didn’t leave him much time to go out. But he said the experience was well worth it.

Although the team said earlier that it was planning on raising funds to compete in September in Australia, it is now putting its efforts and funding into finding a new faculty adviser by January and will not go to the world competition.