University solar car builders race across Outback this week

Members of the University’s Solar Vehicle Project team seek to build as much of the car as they can, from the vehicle’s motors to its battery protection.

Students constructed the majority of the EOS II, the car University students are driving in this year's World Solar Challenge.

Courtesy of Renee Herdtle Photography

Students constructed the majority of the EOS II, the car University students are driving in this year’s World Solar Challenge.

Helen Sabrowsky

Members of the University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project will drive about 1,800 miles across the Australian Outback this week in an international solar car competition.

The University team is one of 42 groups competing in this year’s World Solar Challenge, a biennial event that requires teams to design a car powered only by the sun. Participants say the contest is an opportunity for students to gain hands-on engineering and business experience, as well as spark community interest in environmental sustainability.

This is the fourth time the University’s team, founded in 1990, has competed in the international challenge. This year, the group — driving the EOS II —is one of fourteen teams competing in the Cruiser Class of the competition.

“[The Cruiser class cars] take solar car technology that’s been developed over the last thirty years and make it more practical and make it so that when you see this car, you think ‘Oh, I’d buy one of those,’” said David Sorenson, University undergraduate and co-president and director of operations for the school’s solar car team.

While many teams outsource parts of the design and build process — like buying motors — the University’s 45-person team strives to design and build as much of the car as they can. The team designs components like electric motors, motor controllers and battery protection, said Graham Krumpelmann, director of engineering for the University team. The University’s Centaurus III, active from 2012-14, was designed entirely by the team. 

Students join the team to gain experience that will prepare them for future careers, Krumpelmann said. The team offers students spots in both engineering the car itself and in the business operations of the group.

“I’m not sure if you could get that level of motor design experience anywhere else on campus,” Sorenson said.

Solar cars and the competition also spark interest in sustainable energy. Jake Herbers, Solar Vehicle Project executive team member, said he’s now considering careers in sustainable energy as a result of his solar car experience.

Plus, the cars attract the attention of the communities they pass through and spread awareness of the cause, Krumpelmann said.

“Solar car teams prove to the public that solar is viable technology for the future and the present,” Herbers said.

But designing and building a solar car doesn’t come without challenges. The University’s team faced a setback in one phase of this year’s challenge, when the team ran into an issue with its doors, a critical part of the vehicle.

To fix the issue, several team members worked on the car late into the night. Exhausted, a few team members left to sleep but returned five minutes later, determined to do anything they could to help, Krumpelmann said.

“Being a part of the team has shaped my experience at the University,” Herbers said. “Being able to compete in these races and find success has improved my confidence as well.”