Many people across the US are becoming interested in alternative energy and anthropogenic climate change, and perhaps nothing is more important to that cause than finding ways to reduce the emissions of the vehicles we drive every day. In order for changes in these areas to happen, we need the newest and most innovative ideas out there, which can only come from new minds, like those studying at Oregon State University. At OSU, there is a team that is dedicated to helping engineering students with hands-on experience using mechanical design, composites and solar-energy: the OSU Solar Vehicle Team.
Last year in the Formula Sun Grand Prix, our local solar vehicle team placed first out of 11 teams. This competition was three days of grueling driving, where the cars were only given dawn and early dusk to charge off of the sun. The solar cars race around the track, trying to make as many laps as they can before the time is up. At the end of the competition the team that has driven the farthest (most laps) wins. This year, the team hopes to compete in the American Solar Challenge, July 21 through 28. They will have eight days to drive a 1,700 mile-route from Austin, TX to Minneapolis, MN. They will pass through checkpoints on the way, and the team that gets to the finish line with the fastest time will win. These competitions can cost anywhere from $10,000 for the Formula Sun Grand Prix to $100,000 for the World Solar Challenge.
The team says that one of the most challenging things about building a solar car is raising the money. Less than 10% of the funds needed for each vehicle come from the school, the team has to raise the rest. The car that they have now cost about $200,000 and their new vehicle is estimated to cost around $300,000. Most of the funds for these cars come from major in-kind and monetary donations, made primarily from local Oregon businesses. They also have to raise money to go to competitions, like the race they won last year.
Solar vehicles run like an electric car. The vehicle works by running the electric motor from the battery pack, but it has the added advantage of being able to gain a charge from the sun. There is one rear wheel and two front wheels for steering. The motor for the car is controlled by a two-pedal system, which is similar to a normal car. The turn signals, horn and lights, as well as a backup camera, can be controlled from a touch screen that is located on the steering wheel. The car is completely street legal, functioning and feeling, even driving, like a normal car. Power from the solar array charges the battery pack, as the car is driven; the input of the solar array on a very sunny day is two thirds the power of a hair dryer, but average input is around half the power of a dryer.
Some differences between this particular car and cars that teams at other universities are working on is that the OSU Solar Vehicle Team is one of few that has access to Grade 9 titanium which makes their vehicle one of the safest among solar vehicles. They are also one of the only teams who purchase bare solar cells, which they solder and encapsulate themselves.
Theoretically the car could go around 80mph, but this has never been tested. According to Co-Captain Wilkins White, “During the 2013 Formula Sun Grand Prix it reached speeds of around 67mph… it can sustain about 30-40 mph in direct sunlight.”
White says the mission statement is this: “The OSU Solar Vehicle Team is a group of OSU students, staff, and faculty working together to design, build, and race solar-electric vehicles. The organization is dedicated to providing hands-on experience with solar-electric vehicles, interdisciplinary learning in engineering and business, and education and outreach in sustainability by direct interactions with community and industry.”
Currently there are three co-captains, White, a sophomore in charge of business and solar array, Simon Crocker, a sophomore in charge of the car’s electronics and computer system, and Maxwell Bald, a junior in charge of the vehicle’s mechanical design and implementation. The OSU advisors of the team are Dave O’Gorman, Julia Zhang, and James Liburdy. The leadership of the team changes often based on the interest and availability of members. White says “By cycling the current leadership often and maintaining a large network of past leaders/mentors we insure that all team members have the opportunity to lead and the support to do so.”
According to Lane Brammer, a member of the team, “The most fun thing about the team is our work ethic. Regardless of how dull or tedious the task at hand is, I can hardly think of a time where I wasn’t laughing or having a great time while working. The jobs seem less like work and more like a break from school itself, which is very nice to have.”
By Kyra Young
(Photo Credit: Photos by Co-Captain Wilkins White)