Solar Cars, Shining Lights
By Bill Moore
The North American Solar Challenge pits over a dozen solar-powered EV's in a race from Austin, Texas to Calgary, Canada, the route passing north through the eastern edge of Great Plains and within a stone's throw of EV World's home office in Papillion, NE.
The cars where slated to begin arriving at the Omaha, Nebraska check point, located at Millard West High School, around 3 PM on July 19, 2005. I drove over around 4pm, only to discover that the cars were scattered across Kansas and Nebraska, struggling with downpours and heavy overcast. The MIT car was in the lead and expected to arrive in Omaha around 6pm, with the University of Minnesota car behind it somewhere.
The checkpoint team offered to call if any of the cars arrived before dark and I drove back home to pick up my wife and go to dinner at my parents. We'd just finished when my cellphone rang. The MIT team was at the checkpoint and the Minnesota team had stopped at Papillion LaVista South High School, less than five minutes drive away. With my father in tow, I headed for the high school where I found eighteen young men and one young woman resting from a long, hot, grueling day of thunderstorms and summer heat.
The carbon fiber and Kevlar shell was mounted on jig, tilted up and pointed towards the Sun, catching as much sunlight as possible, while one team member sprayed the hundreds of solar cells with water to keep them from overheating and producing less power. These young people have this down to a science.
You can listen to my impromptu interview with Peter Meinz, one of the drivers, by playing the MP3 files attached to this article. Unfortunately, an attempt to learn something about the technology in the car was met by "we can't tell you that", so we talked instead about the challenge of driving twenty-five hundred miles on sunlight alone.
I planned to attend the Biofuels Workshop in Lincoln, Nebraska the next day and decided to drive by the High School around 7:30 pm, but they had already reassembled the car and headed towards the next checkpoint. Late that afternoon, after spending all day in Lincoln, I exited I-80 and headed east on State Highway 370, passing the McMaster University car, which had stopped along the side of the road, a team member waving an orange flag cautioning traffic to slow down. I swung around and decided to see what was wrong. The car was running erratically going up the long, shallow hills on 370, I was told. Since the team was only about six miles from the Omaha check point, they decided to continue on, but not before I wished them luck and took a few photos. As it turns out, they would need more than luck.
Just a couple miles behind them was the Kansas State car, slotted between its lead and chase car as the evening's commuter traffic rushed impatiently around them. I honked, but I doubt they heard me. I was proud of what they were doing, shining lights of a better tomorrow, even if they were just a curiosity to everyone else on the road..
You can follow the teams progress here. As of this writing, it appears the McMaster car hasn't gotten out of Omaha and the Kansas State car is about 500 miles behind the rest of the field, most of which are now in Winnipeg, over 1600 miles into the 2500 race.
Unusual view of University of Minnesota solar car shows its careful attention to minimizing aerodynamic drag. Purportedly the car can sprint up to 80 mph.
Team member sprays down solar cells to keep them cool, which improves their efficiency. New Papillion LaVista South High School in the background. Papillion is home to EV World and is just south of Omaha, Nebraska.
Minnesota team members hold down the jig used to help catch the last, fading rays of sunlight. Teams are required to stop at 6 pm each day. They use the last coupe hours of daylight to recharge their battery pack, which is then removed from the car and secured overnight to prevent cheating.
The McMaster University team from Canada were struggling with an electrical problem when EV World's publisher came across them on July 20. At this point they were about 24 hours behind the leaders.
Check point at Millard West High School where volunteers await the arrival of the first cars. The cars must remain at the checkpoint for 30 minutes and then can continue. Only MIT's team reached the checkpoint before 6pm on July 19, 2005.