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  • Education: Taking Green to the Streets

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2009
Anne L. Fischer,

While colleges and universities around the world teach various aspects of sustainable technologies, some are teaming up to put into practice what they’ve learned. Solar car challenges are a perfect example. The North American Solar Challenge pits teams of college students against one another in racing a solar car from Plano, Texas, to Calgary, Alberta, Canada. It’s a 10-day, 2400-mile run with teams from Germany, Great Britain, Canada and the US in cars with the power equivalent of a hair dryer.

One of its main sponsors is the Missouri Alternative and Renewable Energy Technology (MARET) Center at Crowder College in Neosho, where, in 1984, students built the first solar vehicle to cross the US. The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, won the challenge in 2008 with a car that had 3000 solar cells, multiple LCD displays, a communication system, a carbon fiber body, and other high-tech advances designed and implemented by a team of mostly undergraduates from several academic disciplines.

After competing in two cross-country races – the 3600-km American Solar Challenge, from Chicago to Los Angeles [2001], and the 3000-km World Solar Challenge, from Darwin to Adelaide [Australia] – the M-Pulse now resides at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

Chris Deline reflects on all he learned while working on the M-Pulse, a solar car designed and driven by students at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

While solar cars are not expected to roll off the assembly line anytime soon, the skills that participants gain as part of the solar car racing experience train them well for careers in alternate energy and other technologies. When Chris Deline was an electrical engineering student at the University of Michigan, he participated in the 1999 and 2001 solar car races in Australia as well as in the 2001 North American Solar Challenge. When he was a freshman, he worked on logistics for the race crew, which meant getting sponsorships for the team. From that experience, he learned organization, time management and problem solving – all of which, as he indicates, are good for any job.

Deline oversaw energy generation and storage, which was provided by a 1.1-kW GaAs multijunction solar array with solar cells from Tecstar (a subsidiary of Quantum Technologies of Irvine, Calif.) Spectrolab of Sylmar, Calif., and which was stored in a 5-kWh lithium ion battery pack.

The skills Deline learned prepared him for a job in the solar panel test and evaluation department of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

A bright future seems to await any student who has researched and evaluated solar cells, studied weather, examined materials, designed aerodynamic wheel wells, investigated lithium batteries and designed a car capable of traveling long distances at 80 mph using only the energy of the sun.

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