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An Evening at the Races
Oct 2009
SAN JOSE, Calif., Monday, Oct. 12, 2009 – Two or three of the contestants tricked out their tiny solar-powered cars, hoping to gain an advantage in speed and thus edge out the competition. They introduced, for example, magnifying sheets and complicated gear assemblages.

Gabrielle Theriault and Veronique Zambon, both of Université Laval, show off their entry in the First International OSA student chapter Solar Mini-Car Competition. (Photonics Media photos by Gary Boas)

Gabrielle Theriault, an optics and photonics student at Université Laval in Quebec City, eyed these cars and slowly shook her head. Such retrofits were unnecessary, she said softly. In the end, “it’s really all about precision.”

Gabrielle and Veronique Zambon, a fellow Laval student, showed me their car, which, aside from a university crest and a miniature license plate identifying the vehicle as Canadian, strayed little from the original kit design. Unlike several of the cars lining up at the starting gate, it featured four wheels, a small solar panel and an otherwise bare chassis – all they needed to win, they said.

Thus began the preliminary races of the First International Optical Society of America (OSA) student chapter Solar Mini-Car Competition – one of the kickoff events for the 2009 Frontiers in Optics meeting taking place this week here in San Jose. The event was the brainchild of Francois Busque, who, while studying at École Polytechnique de Montréal, had witnessed a number of similar competitions at the local and regional levels. He pitched the idea of an international contest, and OSA readily agreed.

Competitors “drove” their cars by shining a spotlight on the solar panels.

The rules were simple. All competitors were given a solar car kit and told to assemble and modify it however they wished to optimize the light-capturing efficiency. Each driver propelled the car toward the finish line using a spotlight attached to a tripod on wheels. If it veered out of bounds, he or she could nudge it back in, albeit at a cost of 5 points deducted from the total score. Points were awarded for completion time, aesthetics and originality of the design.

3…2…1. The spotlight switched on, and the cars leapt into action. Some shot toward the finish line like caged bears on weekend leave. Others pulled to the left and jumped off the track, or simply spun in place (“donuts!” shouted a punter in the crowd). The assembled masses roared as the tiny cars zipped around the room.

I spoke with several of the competitors as the dust settled. Jason King of the University of Tennessee had sought to make his vehicle as light as possible, trimming the treads of the tires and including only one front wheel. He conceded, though, that this might have contributed to his untimely elimination from the contest – noting that his difficulty in the race may have had something to do with the alignment. He remained sanguine, however. “I’ll give it a bit of practice, and see if it works better later.”

“So you’re not giving up?” I said.

“No, I’m not.”

Fei Ye looks on as Jean-Simon Carbeil points to the finish line and calls the race for his car. I’m mentally prepared, Jean-Simon said. This race is 10% car, 90% willpower.”

Chuck Williams of the University of Central Florida was philosophical about his showing. “I didn’t put in the engineering time,” he said, pointing to a screw on the bottom of the car that had apparently, somehow, impeded the car’s progress toward the finish line. “I guess I had other things on my mind. Like my talk.”

Finally, after no small amount of deliberation, the judges announced the results, naming winners in each of the three categories. Jean-Simon Carbeil of École Polytechnique de Montréal took the prize for aesthetics. Jeramy Dickerson of Georgia Tech-Lorraine, who had added a gear assemblage to his car, won for originality.

And for completion time? “We have a clear winner,” declared one of the judges, waiting a beat before she continued. “Veronique, from Université Laval.”

Gary Boas

View all our coverage of Frontiers in Optics 2009

The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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