Gear Up for a Four-Day Race, Fueled by the Sun Solar-Powered Cars Test New Technology, Increase Public Awareness in 'Sunrayce'

By Peter N. Spotts, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 20, 1995 | Go to article overview

Gear Up for a Four-Day Race, Fueled by the Sun Solar-Powered Cars Test New Technology, Increase Public Awareness in 'Sunrayce'


Peter N. Spotts, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


With its annual Memorial Day auto race, Indianapolis is used to high-performance cars. Today the city is the starting point for an assortment of less conventional high-tech racers, bound for Golden, Colo.

The event is Sunrayce '95, a competition among 40 solar-powered cars designed by students from colleges, universities, and vocational schools in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. In this four-day contest, lightness, strength, efficiency, and aerodynamics replace brute horsepower as keys to winning.

The purpose of the race is twofold, according to race director Richard King, who also works in the US Department of Energy's photovoltaic research program. "We want to increase public awareness of photovoltaic technology," he says, referring to the solar cells the cars use to convert sunlight into electricity. And, he adds, the now-biennial event is designed to stimulate science and engineering education.

The rules are simple: Sunlight is the only allowable external energy source; only lead-acid batteries and off-the shelf solar cells designed for terrestrial use may be used; battery weight is limited to 308 pounds; and the cars must have safety features such as seat belts, turn indicators, brake lights, and a rear-view mirror.

The requirements for solar cells and batteries, in particular, help level the playing field and prevent the contest from becoming a fund-raising race. "You can easily spend $500,000 for solar cells and $30,000 for batteries if you use space-grade devices," Mr. King says. "I saw students break down and cry when their $100,000 photovoltaic array didn't work. Besides, we're interested in putting this stuff on your house and in your car, not in space."

Faced with tight restrictions on the energy source, students try to make the most they can out of lightweight composite materials, aerodynamic designs, and custom electronic controls.

Steve Garrison specializes in electronic controls. He heads the electronics-design team for the car entered by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, one of 30 seeded teams. He points to the school's 1993 entry to describe to a visitor the changes being incorporated into the new car. During this visit, about 10 days prior to the race, the car is in several places at the same time: The frame is out being welded, courtesy of the local welders' union apprentice program; parts of the Kevlar laminate body are being "cooked" in an oven at a New Hampshire fabricator. (In term-paper fashion, all of the subassemblies didn't begin to come together until the day the team was to leave for Indianapolis.)

When Mr. Garrison transferred from the state of Washington, he "brought a couple of technical secrets with me," he says. Among them:using solar cells with a textured pattern etched into them. The raised portion of the patterns help collect sunlight coming in at odd angles and they also act as tiny cooling fins. "The cooler the cells are, the more power you get," he explains. …

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