IT students unveil ready-to-race, solar-powered car

Publish Date: 05/03/1995

Amy Gangl
Staff Reporter

A three-wheeled, solar-powered convertible sailed along the sunny sidewalks of Northrop Mall on Tuesday morning.

Students from the University's Institute of Technology presented their completed Aurora II, a sun-powered car set to compete in the students' second outing in a national intercollegiate race. The biennial race goes cross country June 20.

"It's a monumental event to have this out and running like this," said Patrick Starr, a faculty adviser and professor of mechanical engineering. "This is an entirely student-run, student-designed project."

The University did not participate in the first national collegiate solar car competition in 1990. In 1993, Aurora I, the University's first competing solar-powered vehicle, placed 21 out of 36.

Many of the members of the 1993 team have devoted the past two years to redesigning the car. They expect to fare much better this year.

"This car is 10 times the design we had last time," said Charles Habermann, logistics team leader.

Weighing in at about 520 pounds, the newly designed vehicle is 300 pounds lighter than Aurora I. It also has double the battery power. Aurora II registers top speeds of 82 mph. But the average racing speed is 30 to 40 mph, said Paul Kelsey, co-project manager. Several corporations and the University funded the car's $100,000 construction.

The University of Michigan took first place in both national competitions held in 1990 and 1993. The Wolverines averaged 27.29 mph in the seven-day, 1,200-mile race two years ago.

Solar energy is the vehicles' sole source of power. Thin, expensive solar cells turn light into electricity that energizes the cars.

This year's race will begin in Indianapolis and end 10 days later in Colorado. The 1993 race began in Dallas and ended at the Minnesota Zoo. On five of the seven days, rain forced racers to spend a lot of time recharging the vehicles' batteries.

"That's why we're going east to west this year," Kelsey said. "We'll hopefully drive through the weather conditions rather than follow the north to south movements typical of storm systems." Forty teams will travel through 1,200 miles of Midwestern highway traffic.

"We are all required to travel in a three-car caravan -- a solar vehicle, a lead van and a chase van for safety and logistical reasons," said Jessica Gallagher, a co-project manager. "It's pretty safe except for the gawkers."

The design for Aurora II began on the road during the 1993 race.

"We had drafts of the redesign plans in the vans while we were racing last time," Kelsey said."

About 20 students, 90 percent of the 1993 team, have spent 20 to 40 hours a week working on the project.

"Everyone has given their life's blood to this vehicle for the last two years," Kelsey said. "There have been a lot of sleepless nights."

Jessica Gallagher, this year's co-project manager, began working on Aurora I during her first quarter at the University in the fall of 1993.

"It's addicting," Gallagher said. "Once you start, you have to see it through.''

But Gallagher said she may not participate in the next intercollegiate national competition in 1997.

"I want to know what it feels like to just be a student for a while," she said.

Although the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency are searching for clean, alternative sources of energy to replace costly and depleting oil reserves, the project team agreed that the nation's highways will not be crowded with solar vehicles any time soon.

"There has to be some breakthrough in solar cells and batteries," said Virgil Marple, a faculty adviser and professor of mechanical engineering. "Right now, the solar cars are too large and flat."

But Marple said the project is not merely academic.

"It's hard to believe, but someday we are going to run out of fuel, and this project is about exploring power that is pollution-free," he said.