By Hangda Zhang
The Northwestern Solar Car Team was testing its sixth generation solar car in the Ryan Field parking lot on May 23 when the speed of the hand-built vehicle reached 45 mph, its highest speed ever.
Northwestern students are taking the solar car, whose roof is covered with solar panels, to the Formula Sun Grand Prix this summer in Texas.
“They accomplished what they planned to accomplish,” said Dana Comolli, a faculty advisor of the solar car team.
In each day of the formula race, the competing teams will only charge their cars for two hours before the 8-hour race, requiring the cars to rely on solar input.
The race participants will compete based on how many laps they can finish. Last year’s champion, University of Michigan’s FSGP, finished 174 laps, or 596 miles, in the three-day formula race.
“Our battery can run for approximately four hours after it is fully charged,” said Dan Li, the mechanical project lead of the NU Solar Car Team. “So, with safety guaranteed, efficiency is most important of all things.”
The team ran dynamic testing, which includes the slalom test and the turn radius test, to evaluate the solar car’s speed and turning performance. In the slalom test, the car must pass through a line of cones in an s-curve path within a certain time. In the turn radius test, the car must finish a loop in a certain time.
“The testing went well and we were able to get up to the highest speed we have ever got up to,” said Project Manager Spencer Williams.
Li said the team was working to improve their efficiency. They bought an efficient motor that best uses energy, built the car cover out of lightweight carbon fiber, and designed a better aerodynamic shape that reduces air resistance.
“It is extremely complex and it is almost impossible to think the students do this on their own,” Faculty Advisor Walter Herbst said.
The solar car project is a multi-disciplined teamwork sport. Each part: electric engineering, mechanical engineering, software, fundraising and project management, must work together to produce a successful final product.
“It is a hands-on learning experience,” Gail Lueck, the event coordinator of Innovators Educational Foundation, the race’s organizer. “Students need to build their solar cars from scratch.”
Students on the NU Solar Car Team also went to Orrington Elementary School and Evanston Green Living Festival to display their project, giving people a sense of what STEM activity is and promoting green energy.
The cost of solar panels today is about 250 times lower than it was in 1977, according to Bloomberg and pv.energytrend.com. Solar panels are becoming more accessible and affordable, making it easier for researchers to use the solar power for innovation. However, many doubt the drop in price having any practical affect on the use of solar panels with cars.
“Maybe the energy for cars comes from solar energy but you won’t put solar panels on the top of your car just like you wouldn’t put oil refinery on your car to refine crude oil to gasoline,” Li said, calling it inefficient.
“It may be better to have solar panels on the roof and you use electricity to drive a hybrid electric car,” Lueck said, “but solar power is one element in the whole equation of energy sources.”