A Lightning Ride With Solar Pride

June 09, 1993|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- It still had some rough edges. Its turn signals and lights weren't installed yet. And a few parts were held together with tape.

But with just 12 days to go before they're supposed to race it across the Midwest, University of Maryland College of Engineering students decided to roll out their new solar-powered car for university officials and the media here yesterday -- even if it wasn't quite finished.

The vehicle, called "The Pride of Maryland II," is one of 36 solar cars entered in the U.S. Department of Energy's "Sunrayce 1993," a seven-day -- from Arlington, Texas, to Minneapolis scheduled to begin June 20. Colleges and universities from 20 states, Canada and Puerto Rico are competing in this year's event, which is intended to promote solar car technology.

About 40 College of Engineering students spent almost two years designing and building an earlier version of the car. But in April, after taking the first full-scale model of the to qualifying trials in Indianapolis, they decided their race car was too heavy and too slow.

"It was just not going to win the race," said Tony Nicolaidis of Baltimore, who graduated last month, and is the student manager of the solar car project. "The competition was stiff. We knew we had to go back and rebuild it. So we did."

The students launched a crash construction effort. In the past month, they cast a slimmer, trimmer body for the vehicle and built an improved suspension system. Then they installed the original vehicle's three wheels, seven batteries, a high-efficiency 15-horsepower motor, brakes, a steering mechanism, an instrument panel and other equipment.

George E. Dieter, dean of the College of Engineering, praised the students, both for their hard work and for "going to class occasionally."

The result is a 600-pound vehicle that is extremely stable and has a top speed of about 60 mph. "It's lighter, faster, better," Mr. Nicolaidis said. And by yesterday morning it was ready to race -- almost.

The Pride II's plastic bubble canopy and its pool table-sized array of solar cells were strapped onto the body with plastic tape. There were no lights. And the slots cut in the body for its three bicycle-style wheels had ragged edges.

But it ran, its spunky engine whirring and clicking steadily up Campus Drive before a crowd of about 50 students and university officials. Paul Hickey, 23, a Laurel resident who also graduated last month, drove the sleek, wedge-shaped craft past the Glenn L. Martin School of Technology building and into the Campus Drive traffic circle.

Yesterday morning's rollout provided a test of the Pride II's ability to catch rays on cloudy days.

One Pride II team member squinted at the overcast sky and commented: "It's only a 300-watt day." Another team member, Chris Laser, 22, from Beaver Dam, Wis., explained that the solar panel generates only 300 watts when it's cloudy, compared with 900 watts on a sunny day. A typical hair dryer, meanwhile, uses about 1200 watts.

Going into the April qualifying trials, some race officials favored the Maryland team to win this year's Sunrayce. (An earlier solar vehicle built by College Park engineering students, "The Pride of Maryland I," came in third in the previous Sunrayce, held in 1990.)

But after sizing up the competition, some Maryland students say that the solar car teams from Drexel University and the University of Michigan may be the toughest to beat.

The first big test for the Pride II comes tomorrow, during a trial run from College Park to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. The engineering students plan to pack up the vehicle and begin hauling it to Texas on Saturday.

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