Solar car finishes race in Canada

The team spent nine days traveling across the country.

The night before the University’s solar team was to begin its North American Solar Challenge Race in Texas, a piece of the car’s equipment completely failed – and team members thought they might be out immediately.

“We would have been pretty much dead in the water after the first day,” aerospace engineering senior Brandon Wiegert said.

However, after a full night’s work and help from another team, the Centaurus was able to leave on July 13 and finished on Tuesday in Canada – as of press time, the University’s team was in fifth place.

“Just to see a car completely powered by itself driving down the road,” aerospace engineering senior Peter Leonhardt said, “it’s pretty amazing.”

The University has been part of the Solar Vehicle Project since 1990, with students specializing in electrical, mechanical, array – the handling of solar cells – and aerodynamics engineering , giving them a chance to use their skills beyond the classroom.

“It’s a real experience of engineering because you just have these sort of rough rules,” Leonhardt said, “and many things can fit into those so it’s always great to see what other (teams) come up with.”

The team was competing against 24 other teams from across the world , and while the event is called a “competition,”

the atmosphere is a friendly one, participants said, helping each other out through challenges.

Traveling across the country, surrounded by a regular car in front and a regular car behind protecting the vehicle, all 20 University students were with the car from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day, alternating drivers frequently .

While the drive in Canada was more comfortable weather-wise, Jeff Hammer, the team’s advisor , said the southern heat was nearly unbearable.

“Down south, in the heat, that was not humanly possible,” Hammer said of those driving the solar car, which he said got extremely warm inside. “You might go a couple of hours and then you’d just be baked in there.”

Weather also played a role in the power of the solar vehicle, with rainy days at the beginning of the race affecting the speed and time of the car.

Other difficulties included one driver falling asleep for a couple seconds – causing Hammer to “get quite a bit older” – and a part of a tire nearly hitting the car while being passed by a semi-truck .

“Thirty miles an hour next to a semi with a big chunk of tire in front of you is a very dicey situation,” he said. “And we got through it.”

The North American Solar Challenge almost didn’t take place at all because the Department of Energy dropped its funding for the competition. However, Toyota took over, allowing the biannual race to resume after a one year’s delay.

Institute of Technology Dean Steven Crouch said he’s determined to continue the University’s participation in the solar challenge.

While the management and interpersonal skills students establish during the race are beneficial, he said it’s important for the students to have an opportunity to learn about alternative energy as well.

Wiegert, who also participated in the 2006 competition in Taiwan , said it’s essential to begin integrating alternative energy because of the effects on the environment due to years of dependence on oil.

“Just to survive as a human race,” he said, “we’re going to have to consider alternative forms of energy.”