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Solar Car wins North American competition, targets 2011 races

Torehan Sharman/Daily
Engineering senior Santosh Kumar, engineering director of the Solar Car Team, displays the Infinium. The team recently won the 2010 American Solar Challenge and is now preparing for the 2011 World Solar Challenge in Australia Buy this photo

BY TOREHAN SHARMAN
For the Daily
Published July 5, 2010

With their third consecutive win at the 2010 American Solar Challenge on Jun. 26, members of the University’s Solar Car Team have already begun to set their sights on a similar result at the 2011 World Solar Challenge in Australia.

The Infinium — the team’s current car — crossed the finish line more than two hours ahead of its competition, marking the sixth time the Solar Car Team has had a first place finish at the ASC.

Spanning 1,100 miles from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma to Naperville, Illinois, the 2010 American Solar Challenge hosted 13 teams from a variety of institutions, ranging from the University of Minnesota to the Bochum University of Applied Sciences in Germany.

Engineering senior Santosh Kumar, the Solar Car Team’s engineering director, said that despite the team’s winning streak, he and the other members were still concerned about whether they could beat the competition.

“Even though we had a much more superior car, because of the slow nature of the race, we knew that it would be difficult to break away from all these other teams,” he said.

Kumar, who led the team during the race, added that the University of Minnesota — the runner-up team in the ASC this year — ran a very aggressive race but appeared to run out of energy in trying to keep up with the University of Michigan’s solar car.

“We were able to work as a team much better than anybody else and that is what ultimately gained us the victory,” he said.

Kumar said many of the senior members who raced in the 2009 World Solar Challenge graduated, posing another challenge for the team to overcome.

“The biggest challenge was getting them trained in the art of racing a solar car,” he said. “Given these conditions, what I think gave us the win was the rigorous amount of testing we did as soon as school ended.”

The 2010 ASC also underwent several changes from previous years, the most significant being the race route. LSA junior Rachel Kramer, the Solar Car Team’s project manager, said the route was cut in half compared to previous years.

Despite changes in regulation and the team's route, Kumar said they ran into only one issue during the race.

“It was drizzling a bit and the water shorted one of our circuits so we spent about fifteen minutes on the side of the road trying to figure out the problem and debug the problem," Kumar said. "But even then we were going so fast (that) we still managed to finish that stage in first place.”

With another American Solar Challenge win under their belts, members of the Solar Car Team have begun planning on their next goal: winning the World Solar Challenge. The team came in third place in the international competition last year and in seventh place the previous year.

The Infinium, like the team’s previous solar car models, has been retired after two years of racing. Kramer said the team is currently working on a design for their next car, which will be racing in Australia for the 2011 World Solar Challenge.

With the preliminary regulations at hand, Kumar said the team began working on the design for the body of the new car.

“We feel that we can make the new car a lot lighter than Infinium,” said Kumar. “This can come from smarter design, smarter construction, and that’s where we feel a lot of the gains can be made. And of course getting better (solar cells), which is directly correlated to fundraising.”

The team’s business division concentrates on fundraising and getting in contact with companies in order to sponsor the car.

At the moment, the team’s biggest contributions come from the College of Engineering, AT&T, Ford Motor Company, General Motors and Delta Airlines. The sponsors offer financial gains for the team along with consultation for the engineering aspects of the car.

The team uses the fundraising capital in order to purchase newer and more efficient solar cells that they install on the surface of the car.

Along with the corporate sponsorships, the team also receives sponsorships from two University faculty members. Scott Moore, a Business School professor, and Kazuhiro Saitou, an Engineering professor, offer advice and consulting for the team.

Kumar said he expects stiffer competition at the World Championship and in no way guarantees a victory for the University.

“When you go for the American race and then when you go for the World Championship, it’s kind of like a paradigm shift,” he said. “All of a sudden you are no longer the favorite to win and you know that you are up against the best in the world.”

Kramer added that another goal for next year is to reach out to prospective team members.

“Generally speaking we are looking for people who are really motivated and get excited about the team,” she said. “If you want to be a big contributor, it’s going to be time-consuming.”