U engineering students design car fueled by sun

Publish Date: 11/21/1991
Doug Brown
Staff Reporter

In a sunny, spacious room of the old Electrical Engineering building on the Minneapolis campus, a handful of undergraduates have spent the past year scribbling designs for a car fueled by the sun.

Kristine Korbel and Matt Kirkwood, both 21-year-old undergraduate engineering students, plan to enter the car in Sunrayce '93, a race from Texas to Minnesota for solar-powered vehicles taking place June 1993.

Money, or lack of it, say the pair, is the most formidable cloud hanging over the heads of the roughly 30 students involved in the Solar Vehicle Project.

``We need about $200,000 to build the car,'' Kirkwood said. But he added that business students in the Carlson School of Management are planning to launch a fund-raising drive for the project.

Korbel said that $200,000 may sound like a lot of money to build a solar car, but it is much less than the amount other universities have spent building their cars. Last year's winner of the race, the University of Michigan's Sunrunner, cost $800,000 to build, Korbel said.

Mechanical engineering professor Virgil Marple serves as faculty adviser to the students, but they do not receive any academic credit for their work on the solar car project.

Prior to starting the project, Korbel said she and Kirkwood ``knew absolutely nothing about solar energy.''

Korbel, a senior mechanical engineering student, said she got all of her expertise from library books and copies of designs for other solar vehicles. The task of building a car from the idea up, she said, was more difficult than she expected. ``It's a phenomenal task.''

The race from Texas to Minnesota should take roughly seven days, Kirkwood said, adding that the cars will average 35 to 40 mph. The cars will follow highways and compete with local traffic for the entire 950-mile stretch.

Because of potentially searing heat -- they'll be cruising along Texas highways in summer -- and extremely cramped seating in the car, the race team will probably have about eight students to share the driving, Kirkwood said.

Korbel and Kirkwood are trying to build the fastest possible solar car, but they said they need to consider elements other than speed in their final design.

``We have one test which must demonstrate that the car will withstand the force of a passing three-section semi-trailer truck at 60 mph without flipping over,'' Kirkwood said.

And although they would like to win the race, Korbel said the challenge of designing an efficient solar car is what drives her, not the $5,000 in prize money for the winners.

Korbel said the University team will be the underdog in the race -- the University of Michigan vehicle is the favorite -- but she added that her team ``has a few cards up its sleeve, which will give us the edge.''

For fear that someone, anyone, could give the information to another racing team, she refused to reveal those cards.

Once they have money to build the car, Korbel and Kirkwood expect to spend most of their free time on the project. ``The car will be my summer,'' Kirkwood said. But neither of them predict much of a future for solar cars.

Korbel pointed to a tube-shaped drawing on the floor of the room, an outline of the future vehicle.

``Just look at our car,'' she said. ``It's six meters long, but four meters of it are batteries. Solar technology demands that a solar vehicle be mostly batteries. It's impractical.''

Kirkwood, a junior electrical engineering student, said he stumbled across the idea of building a solar car while at a happy hour for engineers, where he met the founder of the original Sunrayce competition. He's been intoxicated ever since with the quest to build this solar vehicle, he said.

``I originally got involved with this project for one reason,'' Kirkwood said. ``I thought it was just plain neat.''