Student project seeks to make solar car a reality

Publish Date: 04/07/1992
Bernadette Dodge
For The Daily

The car will be bigger than an Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser station wagon. It will have a top shaped like a teardrop -- fat end in front -- for optimal aerodynamics. Its bottom will be like an upside-down "U," and its entire surface will be exceptionally smooth.

But it won't have a gas tank or exhaust pipes. This car won't need them: It will run on sunlight.

About 50 University students are working on the Solar Car Project, hoping to make these ideas reality. To garner support, they are holding a public meeting at 6:30 tonight in Coffman Memorial Union Theater.

The students are divided into design teams, and each team will give a short presentation. This will include displaying models of possible designs, including a 6-foot-tall, quarter-scale model of the most likely design.

"It's basically going to be a full overview with a recruitment thing added in there," said Bill Frauly, the shell aerodynamics team leader.

Recruitment is necessary because, next to money, student volunteers are what the project needs most.

"We're getting to the point now where we'll have to start building it," said Frauly. "We need to do some professional-style presentations and artwork. So we're looking for everything from art students to business majors to more engineers."

Building the car is expected to cost about $250,000, said Derek Dahlgren, the project's business manager, and the team is asking companies to donate everything from wind-tunnel use to computer time to, of course, money.

The immediate goal, organizers say, is to have a vehicle ready for Sunrayce '93, an annual national race for solar vehicles built by college students. The race is in June 1993, starting in Dallas and ending in Minneapolis.

But the long-term goal of the project, team leaders say, means more than a race.

"Our organizational goals are to educate students and the community about solar vehicles and to provide practical opportunities for mechanical engineering students and solar energy use," said design manager Kristine Korbel.

The car will capture the sun's energy in photovoltaic cells, which will convert the energy into enough electricity to run a 1500-watt, or 2-horsepower, motor. When there is an abundance of energy, such as when the car is stationary or in full sunlight, the cells will charge lead-acid batteries, which can then be used to fuel the car when it is dark or the driver wants additional speed.

And it should have an average speed of at least 55 miles an hour.

"If we can't maintain that throughout the race, we probably won't end up finishing even close to the top of the pack," said Frauly.

Unfortunately, Korbel said, solar-powered vehicles face a number of obstacles: size, capacity and unreliable power.

A solar car must be huge because two-thirds of its surface is solar cells and light-catching equipment. But it must also be lightweight, usually between 440 and 750 pounds, because electric engines don't have a lot of power. They are also expensive, said Korbel, mostly because of the cost of materials. At $250,000, the University students' planned car costs one-fourth as much as the car that won the GM Sunrayce USA in 1990.

Frauly and Korbel hope that technological breakthroughs will reduce cost or improve efficiency and make solar cars more feasible. Until then, they said students designing solar cars can only help.

"From a scientific standpoint," said Korbel, "every small amount of research directed at solar energy brings our society closer to meeting its energy needs with an energy that is clean, abundant, and free."