Student-built car ready to race

Publish Date: 05/07/1997
Allison Schlesinger Staff Reporter

Institute of Technology senior Laurie Miller puts solar cells on the body of Aurora3, the car of the University's Solar Vehicle Project.

Thirty-eight undergraduate students from IT have invested time in the project. The group will compete against 40 universities from around North America this June in Sunrayce '97. (Photo Sato)


The idea of battling wind, rain and massive changes in elevation to weave across five states in a solar-powered vehicle is a challenge.

But members of the 1997 University Solar Vehicle Project said the task is only a small portion of the battle. Before they set out to compete with students from 40 North American universities in Sunrayce '97 in June, members must use teamwork, past experiences and help from the community to create the quintessential solar vehicle.

The team has already cleared major hurdles of the race. Earlier this month, the car designed for this year's race qualified to compete. On Tuesday, the team officially unveiled Aurora3.

"We're in the pursuit of excellence, and we want everybody to succeed. We have the attitude that we're not measuring ourselves against an absolute standard. There is always a way to make the car better," said Laurie Miller, who joins David Craig as the project's co-manager.

This year marks the third tour for the University in the biennial Sunrayce, which is sponsored by General Motors, Electronic Data Systems Corp. and the United States Department of Energy.

Since its conception in 1990, the purpose of the race is to encourage technical innovation, educational opportunity and educational excellence.

More than 1,000 college students and 2,000 supporters are expected to attend the race, which begins in Indianapolis, Indiana on June 19 and ends nine days later in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

After teams finish the 1,230-mile course, officials will crown the team with the lowest cumulative time; teams will also be honored for the best daily times, technical innovation, sportsmanship and teamwork. Cash awards are given for the teams that finish in first through third place.

But, members of the University's solar vehicle team said they're participating in the race for more than cash and glory.

"An experience like this helps sculpt a person. It improves their ability to work in teams and it also gives us a professional boost," said Aaron MacMillin, a senior in aerospace engineering.

Students from various disciplines in the Institute of Technology first entered the race in 1993 with a vehicle named Aurora (now known as Aurora-I) and fared well. The team received the SAE Design Excellence in Engineering Safety Award, and in the overall race, they finished 21st out of 34 cars.

Using the lessons learned in the first race, a new group of students entered Sunrayce '95 with a new design named Aurora-II. Persistence paid off: The second car came in second place and crossed the finish line just 18 minutes and 43 seconds behind first-place Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The third-place team finished about three hours after Aurora-II reached the end of the course.

After competing in Sunrayce, Aurora-II went on to compete in the 1995 World Solar Rally in Akita, Japan, where it came in 2nd place in its class and 9th place overall.

"Aurora-II is one of the top 10 cars in the nation," Miller said. "It's an incredibly good car, and that's why it's a challenge to top its performance."

Aurora3 is an entirely new car but evolved from both its predecessors. It has a design that stresses safety, lightness and easy access, and it has a larger solar array to accommodate this year's rules.

The cars used in Sunrayce use photovoltaics, or solar cells, to capture sunlight and transform it into usable electricity. The energy, which is used to power a two- to 10-horsepower electric motor, can go directly to the motor when the vehicle is moving, while any excess energy goes to the battery to be stored. When the car is not moving, the energy again goes to the battery.

Officials of the Sunrayce designed the rules and regulations with safety and fairness in mind.

For example, because the race runs along public roadways, all vehicles must adhere to the speed limit or suffer a time penalty.

Regulations allow flexibility in the vehicle's design. Teams must have the following in mind when creating their vehicle: the car's weight and durability, efficiency of all components of the vehicle, aerodynamics, rolling resistance, energy recovery and storage systems, or batteries, to store energy produced by sunlight. Also, vehicles must be equipped with certain driver safety systems.

MacMillin said there are subtle differences in the car's shape and design. Aurora3 is 21 inches longer than its 16-foot predecessor and three inches narrower. He also said his team tried to modify the nose of the vehicle for less wind resistance.

Joe Bianconi, a member of the team and a senior in IT, said Aurora3 has 767 solar cells configured into six major panels on the car. During the race, the team hopes to re-connect the panels in different sequences to maximize the energy-gathering capabilities of the vehicle.

In other words, given the weather, the time of day or the status of the car (racing or charging), the solar panels can be re-connected to capture the most sun rays.

The array team also has been working on finding the most efficient way to protect the solar cells on the vehicle.

The cells, which Miller describes as being "as fragile as a Dorito," need to be encapsulated to protect them from elements such as hail and road rocks. To protect the cells this year, the team decided to use a spray-on encapsulation material instead of the high-bond strength tape used on the Aurora-II.

Although the solar panels, with their electrical wiring and mounting, are the heaviest aspect of the car and race regulations don't require them to be attached at all times, Miller said the team decided that they must stay on during the entire race for the sake of using energy efficiently.

Energy management is, as always, a concern for the project's members. An all-out power surge to move into first place the first day might sound like a good idea, but it could drain the power in the battery and be an obstacle for days to come.

Miller said she remembers a competing team that charged its car's batteries and then took the solar panels off to make the car smaller and lighter. "It was a good premise but it ran their battery into the ground," she said.

Along with the challenges because of the rules and regulations of the race, the team also faced obstacles because of the turnover among the students involved in the project. Because many of the project members graduated, only four members of the Aurora-II team stayed on board for another year. But, with the help of advisers Patrick Starr and Virgil Marple, professors in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and William Peria, a professor of electrical engineering, the team was able to recruit through seminars and workshops. Today, there are about 30 students involved.

But, if this year's race is anything like the previous years', there are more challenges to come.

The first Sunrayce in 1990 stretched from Florida to Michigan, and 32 universities competed for the prize. The winner finished the 18,000-mile course in about 73 hours, with an average speed of 24.7 miles per hour.

In the 1993 Sunrayce, the winning average speed jumped slightly to 27.29 miles per hour. The teams were also presented with a challenge: The "Great Midwest Flood of 1993" made it difficult to navigate from Dallas to Minneapolis.

The race course changed during the 1995 Sunrayce, and this year's course will follow a similar path. Last year, university teams needed to navigate different elevations as they made their way from Indianapolis -- which is 708 feet above sea level -- to Denver, Colorado -- 5,693 feet above sea level. The winning team kept a speed that averaged 37.23 miles per hour.

When Aurora3 hits the streets this year, it will have an elaborate entourage. Two vehicles -- one driving in front of the solar vehicle and one following behind -- will carry team members, strategic plans, emergency tools and other expected necessities for the trip.

Every year, project managers estimate that it should cost about $20,000 to pay for transportation to and from the race, support vehicle rental, food, hotel and other expenses. But, thanks to sponsors, members of the team will use no out-of-pocket funds for the race. And race expenses are just a fraction of the support the University's solar vehicle project has recieved.

Places such as Northwest Airlines have allowed the team to use its facilities for testing and other necessities. Companies such as Graco, a local industrial company, have also donated materials for the project.

The team and sponsor are participating in the race for a larger reason than creating the perfect solar vehicle. In fact, Sunrayce officials say the race is only one aspect of a program that encourages the advancement of renewable energy and energy-efficient technologies. It also encourages the improvement of energy-efficient transportation.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, production and consumption of energy by utilities represents one-third of our total domestic emissions of carbon dioxide. By 2015, there will be an additional 24 million households in the United States that will require new utilities. To replace aging power plants and to keep up with the rising demand of electricity, it will cost the United States $200 billion.

Members of the University's solar vehicle project see their car as just one step in solving the world's energy problems. Solar power is ideal, MacMillin and Miller said, because it is an energy source that requires no chemical reaction, and solar cells could feasibly last forever.

"One day there will be solar-powered electric vehicles on the roadways. They won't be like Aurora3 , but I can see them relying on solar-powered gas stations," MacMillin said.