UM students, favored to win solar car race, begin building

November 27, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- Call it Tony and Jim and Teresa and Cliff's excellent adventure.

After months of design work and wind-tunnel tests on a 1/3 -scale model, a small group of engineering students at the University of Maryland are starting to build a new solar-powered car to compete in "Sunrayce '93," a race from Dallas to Minneapolis scheduled for late June.

The buglike, three-wheeled vehicle, called the Pride of Maryland II, is still just a jumble of drawings, plans, odd parts and good intentions -- with just three months to go to the "rollout" deadline. The 50-member team is $13,800 short of their fund-raising goal of $100,000. And some student engineers are doing what students seem to do best, putting off until tomorrow what they should have done before mid-terms.

"The real challenge is trying to get this group of students to gel," said David Holloway, a College Park engineering professor and adviser to the racing team. "It's still in the very fluid and viscous stage."

Not to worry, says project manager Tony Nicolaidis, a 23-year-old College Park senior from Baltimore's Greektown. "Honestly, I have complete and utter confidence in our team," he said.

"It will be crunch time in the end," he conceded. "People will be sleeping in the lab in the last few days. We're students and we're going to work at our own pace. . . . But I have to start telling them, 'Dude, here's the deal. You've got to start kicking some butt.' "

Mr. Nicolaidis, elected to his post in April, is the self-assured son of immigrant parents who run a take-out restaurant in Randallstown. With flowing black hair and tubular frame, he looks more like a rock 'n' roll guitarist than an electrical engineer.

In fact, he aspires to both. The Archbishop Curley High School graduate was talking to a corporate recruiter a couple of weeks ago when he was asked where he wanted to be in five years.

"All I could think of saying was that I wanted to grow my hair and be in a band and tour the world and have a carefree life," he said. "But I gave him an engineering answer instead."

The students could have chosen to redesign, retool and race the first Pride of Maryland, an award-winning vehicle that finished 3rd in 1990's 1,640-mile "Sunrayce USA," out of a field of cars from 31 U.S. universities.

That same year, Pride I finished seventh out of 36 in an international -- across Australia's outback -- competing against such solar powerhouses as Honda, Switzerland's Bienne School Engineering and Maryland's archrival, the University of Michigan.

But the College Park team decided to design and build a new car from scratch. The chief reason, Mr. Nicolaidis said, is "the excitement of starting all over again, the commitment involved."

"The old car is a very good one," Mr. Nicolaidis said. "It's light. It's got a very good design. We've just got to make it better . . . (Maryland's) solar car program has a tremendous reputation, and we're favored to win the race. We have really high hopes. We have a really good team."

This kind of swashbuckling optimism seems the rule among Pride engineers.

"All in all it's been a great experience," said Jim Zahniser, 22, of Severna Park, the leader of the team designing the car's instruments, lights, horn and windshield wiper. "Before I started this I had a lot of book knowledge. But starting this, I see how it comes together. I put the book knowledge together with practical knowledge."

Mr. Zahniser tests the car's instrument panel in a closet-sized room while wearing a coarse T-shirt, bleached jeans with missing knees and an ancient pair of parchment-colored loafers. In Pride I, he explains, the --board instruments were hard-wired, and fixing them was difficult and time-consuming when they failed.

His team's instrument panel -- a volt meter and two amp meters -- is designed to be removed and replaced as a unit in 10 minutes. Stepping over a crate full of batteries, he walks up to the car's black, flower-pot-sized 15-horsepower engine mounted on a testing stand.

Students are testing the tiny motor's efficiency, a crucial factor since the car's 595 photovoltaic cells will pump out only about 1,000 watts at peak sunlight conditions -- enough to power 13 or 14 standard light bulbs.

"The building of it isn't hard, that's the fun part," he said. What is not fun, he said, is calling up electronics parts suppliers and begging for freebies or discounts. "But the more you get for free, the better off you are," he shrugs.

Sponsors range from the university itself and corporate giants like DuPont and American Cyanamid, which provided money, to small businesses such as Beldon Cable Co. of Maryland, which donated wire, and Roy's Body Shop of Eldersburg, which will help paint Pride II.

Teresa Hunt, 21, a senior from College Park majoring in aerospace engineering, is working on the Pride II's transparent canopy. A mound of plastic that will be used to form the canopy sits in the middle of the work room, and she peels back some of the wrapping to show the smooth surface.

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