Solar cars race 2,500 miles from Austin, Texas, to Calgary, Canada

Students from Canada, U.S. test ideas, technology

July 24, 2005|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

AUSTIN, Texas - Tired of outrageous gasoline prices? Maybe you'd be interested in a car that uses about as much electricity as a hair dryer, makes less noise than a bicycle and gets the equivalent of 2,500 miles per gallon.

There are a few trade-offs, however.

There's no air conditioning, radio or power-window option - in fact, there are no windows at all. The driver's seat not only has no leather, but it also has no padding or upholstery. And if it's cloudy or dark, well, forget about traveling very far.

But if the sun is shining, this car can go 65 mph or faster, pretty much forever. At least until a tire explodes, a circuit blows or the driver passes out from heat exhaustion.

Such are the risks in a solar race car, an ungainly experimental vehicle that looks something like a cross between a stingray and a Stealth bomber mounted on a flatbed parade float. Twenty of the handmade cars took off from downtown Austin last Sunday morning on a 2,500-mile, 11-day race to Calgary, Canada.

The competition is the seventh running of the North American Solar Challenge, a biennial race that pits teams of college students from the United States and Canada against each other, the weather and the challenges of making cutting-edge technology actually work.

Teams from three Illinois universities - Southern Illinois/Edwardsville, Illinois State and Northwestern - survived time trials and safety checks to make it into the field, while the much larger University of Texas failed to make the cut and much wealthier Stanford almost didn't get off the starting line because of a loose wire. (It was soldered back on with the help of a cigarette lighter borrowed from a spectator.)

Some veteran teams showed up with aerodynamic, state-of-the-art vehicles costing hundreds of thousands of dollars that featured the latest lithium ion batteries and lightweight composite frames plastered with hundreds of shiny solar cells to absorb the sun's energy.

The 20-student University of Michigan team from Ann Arbor, backed by donations from General Motors and Ford, went the Rolls Royce route, spending $1.8 million on its solar car, an 18-wheeler to haul it and a support van outfitted with a satellite dish on the roof.

The cockpit of the Michigan race car features a color TV monitor connected to a rear-view camera so the driver can see who's coming from behind.

The six students from Illinois State, by contrast, were making their school's first appearance in a solar race and began working on their car only in February. They spent about $35,000.

"We're taking a decidedly simple approach," said Alex Jurasek, a 19-year-old sophomore on the Illinois State team. "Like, we put a fan from an old computer in the cockpit. That's our air conditioning."

The decidedly boxy Southern Illinois entry, meanwhile, looked like an orange Ford Fairlane and made a worrisome knocking noise as it got under way.

Yet such Cinderella teams have a real chance of beating their wealthier rivals, race organizers insist.

That's because, in a competition where going faster means using more precious energy and cloudy skies can stop a car cold, sometimes strategy and luck count more than technology.

"Money greases these wheels, but it doesn't make them go faster," said Dan Eberle, the race director.

By Sunday night, however, two of the Illinois teams had turned into pumpkins. Race officials said a rainstorm shorted out the circuit board of the Northwestern car, forcing it out of the competition, and the SIU car couldn't complete the first leg.

Although some innovations developed by the student engineers might eventually find their way into the marketplace, solar power is not coming any time soon to a passenger vehicle near you.

The reason is a natural limit imposed by basic physics, according to University of Texas engineering professor Gary Hallock: Each square yard of solar panels can generate about 1.5 horsepower.

The design of the solar race cars maximizes the area available for the necessary panels, but even the best-designed vehicles can generate about 5 horsepower at most.

That means a typical 200-horsepower solar passenger car would have to be something like 48 feet long and 30 feet wide to contain the necessary solar panels.

And you still couldn't drive it at night.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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