Texas-to-Minnesota competition lets the sun shine in — for fuel

07/29/2014 10:18 AM

07/29/2014 10:19 AM

The idea of a solar-powered car that can hold its own on today’s interstates seems like science fiction, but it’s not as far from reality as you might think.

On Thursday afternoon, the competitors of the American Solar Car Challenge rolled through Overland Park in their specially built vehicles on their way from Austin, Texas, to Minneapolis.

In the middle of the pack was Blue Valley High School graduate Jackson Walker with the team from Principia College. A sophomore computer science major, Walker has been working on the wiring and computer systems of the 632-pound car.

What’s unusual is that no one on his team is studying engineering. Principia doesn’t even offer an engineering major, unlike some of the other competing schools, and several team members major in unrelated humanities fields. The school has approximately 500 students.

The University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota were leading the competition as the cars arrived in Overland Park.

Walker’s happy to see his team holding its own against much larger schools, especially since they almost lost their chance to even be in the race.

Back in Austin, at the qualifying track, “there was an electrical fire in the battery of the car next to ours,” Walker said.

Although their car wasn’t damaged by the fire itself, the many gallons of water that poured down from the sprinkler system soaked every component of Principia’s car. The students, who had invested a year of work designing and building the car, weren’t about to let that ruin their chance.

“We had to strip and rebuild it in seven hours. It should not have been possible,” said Walker.

It worked, and the team was able to qualify its vehicle as safe and road-worthy. Adviser Joe Ritter, dean of academics at Principia, said that some of the parts didn’t get the chance to fully dry out, and that has hampered the car’s performance somewhat.

Still, the car, which looks like something out of the Jetsons with a solar panel completely covering the top and a small pod for a driver, is reaching 63 mph on the open road.

It’s attracting a fair share of attention on its journey north.

“We get rubberneckers, people hanging out their windows with cameras,” Walker said.

To keep the car safe from surrounding traffic, there are lead and follow cars around it on the road. Because the car can hold only one person, the rest of the team travels in these cars. Two students qualified to drive the car during the safety tests in Austin.

Walker is junior to some of the other 12 students on the team and refers to himself as an apprentice when it comes to building and designing the car. He estimated that he’s spent 15 to 20 hours a week over the last year working on the car.

Ritter called the work of building the car “the land of 10,000 details” and said he was proud that a team of undergraduates could make it happen.

Another 13 students were in a related class at Principia and helped create the car.

“It is a class, but there’s so much more than class time,” Walker said. “I felt I could belong here.”

The competition is set up in stages. Each day, the teams must travel a certain distance to a checkpoint. Before Overland Park, the teams stopped over in Norman, Okla., and afterward, they traveled on to Omaha.

Strict rules surround the competition to make it safe and fair. Each team gets only 30 minutes to charge its battery after arriving at each checkpoint before officials take custody of the battery.

That charge gives them the starting energy for the next day. After that, the solar panels on the car allow it to continue charging during the drive, until they make it to the next checkpoint.

If there’s a problem with the car, the team can put it in a gasoline-powered trailer and drive to the next checkpoint, but they will only get credit for the distance traveled under solar power.

Even if they’re slower, any team who completes the race using solar power alone will place ahead of a team using a trailer for any portion of the course. The race finished Monday in Minneapolis, with the Principia team coming in fifth.

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