Students unveil solar-powered car

Thursday morning was appropriately sunny for a group of University students.

The Solar Vehicle Project team unveiled its solar car Thursday morning, almost two months before the 2008 North American Solar Challenge – a race that will take the team from Dallas to Calgary, Alberta.

Sam Lenius, electrical engineering senior and team leader, said before the car’s introduction that the process is a more practical component of his time at the Institute of Technology.

“If we get the answer wrong here,” he said, “it means we’re probably on the side of the road.”

The car is 3 feet tall, 16 feet long and six feet wide. As opposed to past solar races the University has competed in, the driver actually sits in an upright position. Temperatures in the car can reach 130 degrees.

Nick Simon, an aerospace engineering junior, drove the car during its unveiling outside McNamara Alumni Center. A total of four students will drive the car in the race – two per day, from July 13 to 22.

“It’s warm, but it’s manageable,” Simon said of the heat.

The competition is held semiannually, though this summer’s will be the first since 2005. The Department of Energy lifted funding for the event last year.

“Doom and gloom had settled upon us,” aerospace engineering professor and group adviser Jeff Hammer said.

However, corporate sponsorships from Toyota kept the 26-team race afloat.

“Solar Car is really the most automotive thing I.T. does,” Lenius said.

In 2005, the University’s team came in second, falling to the University of Michigan’s team.

Lenius said the current team has high expectations for this year’s race.

“We’re going to do really well,” he said. “This is a world-class competition.”

University President Bob Bruininks visited the team after the unveiling.

“This is exciting to see our great students working on this project. It can’t happen too soon,” he said, referring to new energy sources.

The University’s car has been in construction for more than a year. Lenius said students have upwards of 35,000 total hours working on the project.

Institute of Technology Dean Steven Crouch said that students, not faculty, were the driving force behind the project.

“This is the culmination of the education process for these students,” he said.

The car cost $200,000 to $300,000 to build, but the team only collected around $75,000, Hammer said. The balance came from services and materials supplied by sponsors.

The vehicle will be powered by about 530 solar cells. On a sunny day, the car will produce about 1,500 watts of power – roughly the power of a hairdryer.

“When light hits a surface, most times the energy is converted to heat,” Hammer said. “But solar cells convert that to electricity.”

The team’s car can reach up to 80 miles per hour but, since members will be traveling on public roads for the race, they must obey speed limits.

Brandon Wiegert, an aerospace engineering junior, was a driver the last time the University competed. This year, Wiegert was involved in the building stages as well.

“It increases my appreciation for the team that has done it before me,” he said of the designing and building process.

Wiegert said his goal for the solar car was simple.

“We’re here to build a car, to go fast,” he said.