Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Solar Car Team -- Winners Before the Race Began

Solar Car team members come from a University-wide range of disciplines, including the College of Engineering, the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.  As many as 200 volunteer students throw themselves into the effort of designing, building and racing a solar car -- that includes all of the business and logistics involved in any large-scale operation.


Of those 200 students, 23 have traveled to Australia to compete in the 2009 World Solar Challenge. But they're all there in sprit and all winners before the follow team members set foot on Australian soil.




Steve Hechtman, the race manager for the 2009 team, graduated from U-M in May 2009 with BSE in electrical engineering. He's been a member of the team since his first semester, and the 2009 World Solar Challenge (WSC) is his trip to the contest. Hechtman was one of Continuum's drivers during WSC 2007 and the 2008 North American Solar Challenge (NASC). He's originally from the Washington, D.C., suburb of Vienna, Virginia, and has been interested in computers and cars since his childhood.



Alex Dowling joined the team's Strategy Division just weeks into his college career. During his three years on the team, he's served the team the interim strategy director during the 2007 WSC, head strategist during the 2008 NASC, strategy director for the Infinium project, and as head strategist for WSC 2009. Dowling is a senior in Chemical Engineering department and plans to pursue a PhD. Skilled at the keyboard, he writes simulations for the everyday needs of his teammates.



John Federspiel, the team's crew chief and director of the Engineering Division, is studying mechanical engineering and will graduate in the spring of 2011. Federspiel has been on the team since his first year in college and traveled to Australia for the World Solar Challenge in 2007. He helped develop the solar concentrator system used for Continuum in the 2007 WSC, and was a member of the NASC 2008 Race Crew.



Rachel Unger recently graduated with a BS in economics and environment and has been looking forward to the World Solar Challenge. Passionate about renewable energy and sustainable transportation, she joined the Solar Car Team about a year ago and has since been working with the Operations Division. Unger, originally from a Washington, D.C. suburb in Maryland, is also interested in politics and policy.



Aubrey da Cunha is a member of the Strategy Division, specializing in simulation and optimization. Originally from Cottonwood, Arizona, he joined the team in September, drawn by the complex problem of energy management. Despite being a newer member of the team, da Cunha is a valuable member of the Infinium project. When he's not writing software for the team, da Cunha is a graduate student in mathematics studying computational complexity theory.



Josh Feldman, a member of the team's Strategy Division, is in charge of data handling and communication between race vehicles. He's entering his third year as a computer-science student in the College of Engineering. Originally from Long Island, New York, Feldman raced with the team in the 2008 North American Solar Challenge. He's enthusiastic about the team's accomplishments and looks forward to helping propel the team to the world championship.



Santosh Kumar joined the Strategy Division of the team in his junior year. Born and raised in Singapore, he's currently studying aerospace engineering and is using his talents in math and science to help Infinium run the WSC's Stuart Highway as fast as possible. Kumar contributes regularly to the team's Quote Wall and spends a lot of time building with Lego blocks, running down soccer balls and watching cherry blossoms.



Chris McMeeking is new to the team's Strategy Division this year. A junior majoring in Computer Science in the College of Engineering, he works specifically in the areas of meteorology and weather forecasting and is putting his talents to work for the team on its bid to win the World Solar Challenge. When not working on Solar Car, McMeeking enjoys watching the Detroit Red Wings, who (he claims) are on their way to another Stanley Cup Championship.



Julia Hawley joined the Solar Car Team as a member of the Business Division her sophomore year. She started out doing marketing and events for the team and was elected Business Director that January. She's found her solar car experience invaluable, describing it as the most challenging yet rewarding experience of her life. Excited about traveling with the team to Australia, she hopes that Infinium will bring the WSC championship back to the United States. Hawley isn't sure what she would like to do when she "grows up," but she hopes to run a marathon and live in Argentina or Spain at some point in her life.



Ethan Lardner joined the Operations Division of the team in the fall of his freshman year. Now a sophomore engineer, the Milan, Illinois, native typically logs more than 900 miles a week in his personal Ford truck. He played an integral part in Infinium's production. His official team duties make him responsible for outfitting the support vehicle and semi trailer, operations procurement and kangaroo wrangling. When he isn't driving his truck for solar car purposes, Lardner enjoys boating, hunting, camping and playing his cello.



Jeff Rogers has been on the team for about five years as a member of the Micro-Electrical Engineering Division. He's a graduate student in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and is the most senior active member of the Solar Car team. As the lead micro-electrical engineer on the team, Rogers does his best to delegate work and transfer knowledge to less experienced team members. Outside of his solar car involvement, he spends time at Toyota Technical Center working on integrated vehicle systems. In his free time he tinkers with computers, cooks meals with friends and keeps his other teammates in check.



Jeremy Nash joined the Micro-Electrical Engineering Division of the team within his first weeks of transferring to the College of Engineering. He's a micro-electrical engineer entering his third year of studies in Computer Engineering. He's managed to find time to write a pop song that aired on the radio, act in a German film, learn Mandarin Chinese, rebuild homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and enter a jazz duel in concert with Geoffrey Keezer. He's also a biomedical device researcher at the WuMRC Laboratory in Ann Arbor, where he works on diagnosing vascular access failure in hemodialysis patients.



Sudeep Rohatgi joined the Power Electrical Division during his first semester at Michigan and is thrilled to be designing and racing Infinium. He's entering his third year of studies in electrical engineering. After spending a summer researching organic solar cells, Rohatgi became interested in energy conversion devices and started designing Infinium's solar array. Outside of his solar car work, he plays ultimate Frisbee, spends time with family and friends, listens to music and reads.



Ethan Stark joined the Power Electrical Engineering Division last fall at the first chance he got after arriving here from sunny California and has been on it ever since. Just finishing his first year at Michigan Engineering, he's very excited to be in Australia and even more excited to win. Outside of his team activities, Stark is a member of Theta Tau Professional Engineering fraternity and is an engineering-physics major.



Gerald Chang joined the solar car team in his freshman year as a member of the Mechanical Engineering Division. Now a second year student, he helped the 2008 race crew power the team to Michigan's fifth national championship. He also led mechanical engineers during the design phase and now makes sure he does everything he can to make Infinium a world-champion solar car. He says that the 2009 World Solar Challenge will be "the greatest event of my life."



Chris Hilger has been a member of the Mechanical Engineering Division of the team since the beginning of his freshman year. Currently studying chemical engineering, he's the head of sourcing for the team, a position in which he gets involved with both the engineering and the business aspects of the project. He's served as a mechanical engineer since production of Infinium was completed. After graduation, he hopes to launch an alternative energy company. In his free time, Hilger enjoys water sports, traveling and spending time with family and friends.



Dylan Reitzell joined the Aero Engineering Division of the team during his freshman year mainly to promote an environmental message but also because of his love to create new things and in hopes of using his Aerospace Engineering knowledge. After spending the last year and half helping to design the body of the car, Reitzell is very excited to have built and now to race Infinium in Australia.



Eric Relson joined the Mechanical Engineering Division within his first month at the University of Michigan. His work for the Solar Car Team is largely mechanical and hands-on. Ever since joining the team, he's "progressed from swallowing LEGOS to breathing carbon-fiber dust." Relson is a native of Ann Arbor and just finished his third year as an undergraduate studying nuclear engineering -- a discipline that, he said, his high school's robotics team sparked him to pursue.



Steve Durbin joined the team as a member of the Business Division in the fall of his sophomore year looking for something to do with his spare time. He's entering his senior year in pursuit of an aerospace-engineering degree. After a year on the team, Durbin was elected Interim Project Manager. While his fellow teammates are racing in Australia this fall, Durbin's leading the team in Ann Arbor. He enjoys playing sports and watching movies in his free time. He is also a devoted Detroit sports fan.



Tanya Das is on the Micro-Electrical Division of the Solar Car Team and is serving as the Interim Engineering Director while her teammates race Infinium in Australia. A team member since the beginning of her sophomore year, she's now a junior studying electrical engineering, with particular interest in the field of solid-state electronics. Das is originally from Rochester Hills, MI, and in her free time enjoys reading, camping and just building things in general.


Rachel Kramer joined the Strategy Division of the team in the fall of 2008. A sophomore in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, she knew little about computer programming before joining the team but she quickly became interested in the optimization work of the Strategy Division. Kramer has since learned a lot about programming and the workings of the team as a whole and now serves as the interim strategy director. Outside of the team and regular classes, Kramer is a proud member of the Michigan Squirrel Feeding Club. She's originally from Ludington, Michigan.



Emily Tischler joined the Business Division in her junior year at the in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business BBA program and is currently serving the team as Interim Business Director. Tischler is from Los Angeles, California, where her interest in cars began. She's interested in pursuing marketing, public relations and advertising. She also enjoys playing basketball, writing and ar, and is conducting research in organizational psychology with Prof. Lee and Melanie Henderson. Tischler hopes to go into a business career in the fashion industry.



Brian Pak is a junior in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business. Joining the team his sophomore year, he spent most of his time working on sponsorship procurement for the Business Division and is now the Interim Operations Leader. Pak, a native of Denver, Colorado, loves hitting the slopes during his free time to snowboard. Some of his other interests include swimming, volleyball and tennis. In the future, Pak hopes to work in corporate finance.

The Solar Car Team -- Winners Before the Race Began

Solar Car team members come from a University-wide range of disciplines, including the College of Engineering, the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.  As many as 200 volunteer students throw themselves into the effort of designing, building and racing a solar car -- that includes all of the business and logistics involved in any large-scale operation.


Of those 200 students, 23 have traveled to Australia to compete in the 2009 World Solar Challenge. But they're all there in sprit and all winners before the follow team members set foot on Australian soil.




Steve Hechtman, the race manager for the 2009 team, graduated from U-M in May 2009 with BSE in electrical engineering. He's been a member of the team since his first semester, and the 2009 World Solar Challenge (WSC) is his trip to the contest. Hechtman was one of Continuum's drivers during WSC 2007 and the 2008 North American Solar Challenge (NASC). He's originally from the Washington, D.C., suburb of Vienna, Virginia, and has been interested in computers and cars since his childhood.



Alex Dowling joined the team's Strategy Division just weeks into his college career. During his three years on the team, he's served the team the interim strategy director during the 2007 WSC, head strategist during the 2008 NASC, strategy director for the Infinium project, and as head strategist for WSC 2009. Dowling is a senior in Chemical Engineering department and plans to pursue a PhD. Skilled at the keyboard, he writes simulations for the everyday needs of his teammates.



John Federspiel, the team's crew chief and director of the Engineering Division, is studying mechanical engineering and will graduate in the spring of 2011. Federspiel has been on the team since his first year in college and traveled to Australia for the World Solar Challenge in 2007. He helped develop the solar concentrator system used for Continuum in the 2007 WSC, and was a member of the NASC 2008 Race Crew.



Rachel Unger recently graduated with a BS in economics and environment and has been looking forward to the World Solar Challenge. Passionate about renewable energy and sustainable transportation, she joined the Solar Car Team about a year ago and has since been working with the Operations Division. Unger, originally from a Washington, D.C. suburb in Maryland, is also interested in politics and policy.



Aubrey da Cunha is a member of the Strategy Division, specializing in simulation and optimization. Originally from Cottonwood, Arizona, he joined the team in September, drawn by the complex problem of energy management. Despite being a newer member of the team, da Cunha is a valuable member of the Infinium project. When he's not writing software for the team, da Cunha is a graduate student in mathematics studying computational complexity theory.



Josh Feldman, a member of the team's Strategy Division, is in charge of data handling and communication between race vehicles. He's entering his third year as a computer-science student in the College of Engineering. Originally from Long Island, New York, Feldman raced with the team in the 2008 North American Solar Challenge. He's enthusiastic about the team's accomplishments and looks forward to helping propel the team to the world championship.



Santosh Kumar joined the Strategy Division of the team in his junior year. Born and raised in Singapore, he's currently studying aerospace engineering and is using his talents in math and science to help Infinium run the WSC's Stuart Highway as fast as possible. Kumar contributes regularly to the team's Quote Wall and spends a lot of time building with Lego blocks, running down soccer balls and watching cherry blossoms.



Chris McMeeking is new to the team's Strategy Division this year. A junior majoring in Computer Science in the College of Engineering, he works specifically in the areas of meteorology and weather forecasting and is putting his talents to work for the team on its bid to win the World Solar Challenge. When not working on Solar Car, McMeeking enjoys watching the Detroit Red Wings, who (he claims) are on their way to another Stanley Cup Championship.



Julia Hawley joined the Solar Car Team as a member of the Business Division her sophomore year. She started out doing marketing and events for the team and was elected Business Director that January. She's found her solar car experience invaluable, describing it as the most challenging yet rewarding experience of her life. Excited about traveling with the team to Australia, she hopes that Infinium will bring the WSC championship back to the United States. Hawley isn't sure what she would like to do when she "grows up," but she hopes to run a marathon and live in Argentina or Spain at some point in her life.



Ethan Lardner joined the Operations Division of the team in the fall of his freshman year. Now a sophomore engineer, the Milan, Illinois, native typically logs more than 900 miles a week in his personal Ford truck. He played an integral part in Infinium's production. His official team duties make him responsible for outfitting the support vehicle and semi trailer, operations procurement and kangaroo wrangling. When he isn't driving his truck for solar car purposes, Lardner enjoys boating, hunting, camping and playing his cello.



Jeff Rogers has been on the team for about five years as a member of the Micro-Electrical Engineering Division. He's a graduate student in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and is the most senior active member of the Solar Car team. As the lead micro-electrical engineer on the team, Rogers does his best to delegate work and transfer knowledge to less experienced team members. Outside of his solar car involvement, he spends time at Toyota Technical Center working on integrated vehicle systems. In his free time he tinkers with computers, cooks meals with friends and keeps his other teammates in check.



Jeremy Nash joined the Micro-Electrical Engineering Division of the team within his first weeks of transferring to the College of Engineering. He's a micro-electrical engineer entering his third year of studies in Computer Engineering. He's managed to find time to write a pop song that aired on the radio, act in a German film, learn Mandarin Chinese, rebuild homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and enter a jazz duel in concert with Geoffrey Keezer. He's also a biomedical device researcher at the WuMRC Laboratory in Ann Arbor, where he works on diagnosing vascular access failure in hemodialysis patients.



Sudeep Rohatgi joined the Power Electrical Division during his first semester at Michigan and is thrilled to be designing and racing Infinium. He's entering his third year of studies in electrical engineering. After spending a summer researching organic solar cells, Rohatgi became interested in energy conversion devices and started designing Infinium's solar array. Outside of his solar car work, he plays ultimate Frisbee, spends time with family and friends, listens to music and reads.



Ethan Stark joined the Power Electrical Engineering Division last fall at the first chance he got after arriving here from sunny California and has been on it ever since. Just finishing his first year at Michigan Engineering, he's very excited to be in Australia and even more excited to win. Outside of his team activities, Stark is a member of Theta Tau Professional Engineering fraternity and is an engineering-physics major.



Gerald Chang joined the solar car team in his freshman year as a member of the Mechanical Engineering Division. Now a second year student, he helped the 2008 race crew power the team to Michigan's fifth national championship. He also led mechanical engineers during the design phase and now makes sure he does everything he can to make Infinium a world-champion solar car. He says that the 2009 World Solar Challenge will be "the greatest event of my life."



Chris Hilger has been a member of the Mechanical Engineering Division of the team since the beginning of his freshman year. Currently studying chemical engineering, he's the head of sourcing for the team, a position in which he gets involved with both the engineering and the business aspects of the project. He's served as a mechanical engineer since production of Infinium was completed. After graduation, he hopes to launch an alternative energy company. In his free time, Hilger enjoys water sports, traveling and spending time with family and friends.



Dylan Reitzell joined the Aero Engineering Division of the team during his freshman year mainly to promote an environmental message but also because of his love to create new things and in hopes of using his Aerospace Engineering knowledge. After spending the last year and half helping to design the body of the car, Reitzell is very excited to have built and now to race Infinium in Australia.



Eric Relson joined the Mechanical Engineering Division within his first month at the University of Michigan. His work for the Solar Car Team is largely mechanical and hands-on. Ever since joining the team, he's "progressed from swallowing LEGOS to breathing carbon-fiber dust." Relson is a native of Ann Arbor and just finished his third year as an undergraduate studying nuclear engineering -- a discipline that, he said, his high school's robotics team sparked him to pursue.



Steve Durbin joined the team as a member of the Business Division in the fall of his sophomore year looking for something to do with his spare time. He's entering his senior year in pursuit of an aerospace-engineering degree. After a year on the team, Durbin was elected Interim Project Manager. While his fellow teammates are racing in Australia this fall, Durbin's leading the team in Ann Arbor. He enjoys playing sports and watching movies in his free time. He is also a devoted Detroit sports fan.



Tanya Das is on the Micro-Electrical Division of the Solar Car Team and is serving as the Interim Engineering Director while her teammates race Infinium in Australia. A team member since the beginning of her sophomore year, she's now a junior studying electrical engineering, with particular interest in the field of solid-state electronics. Das is originally from Rochester Hills, MI, and in her free time enjoys reading, camping and just building things in general.


Rachel Kramer joined the Strategy Division of the team in the fall of 2008. A sophomore in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, she knew little about computer programming before joining the team but she quickly became interested in the optimization work of the Strategy Division. Kramer has since learned a lot about programming and the workings of the team as a whole and now serves as the interim strategy director. Outside of the team and regular classes, Kramer is a proud member of the Michigan Squirrel Feeding Club. She's originally from Ludington, Michigan.



Emily Tischler joined the Business Division in her junior year at the in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business BBA program and is currently serving the team as Interim Business Director. Tischler is from Los Angeles, California, where her interest in cars began. She's interested in pursuing marketing, public relations and advertising. She also enjoys playing basketball, writing and ar, and is conducting research in organizational psychology with Prof. Lee and Melanie Henderson. Tischler hopes to go into a business career in the fashion industry.



Brian Pak is a junior in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business. Joining the team his sophomore year, he spent most of his time working on sponsorship procurement for the Business Division and is now the Interim Operations Leader. Pak, a native of Denver, Colorado, loves hitting the slopes during his free time to snowboard. Some of his other interests include swimming, volleyball and tennis. In the future, Pak hopes to work in corporate finance.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The World Solar Challenge -- A Long Run Down the Stuart Highway


The World Solar Challenge runs about 3,200 kilometers on Australia's Stuart Highway, north to south, Darwin to Adelaide -- through tropical rainforests, across the savannah country, through barren desert to the fertile coastal regions of the south. U-M's Infinium and its rivals will pass breathtaking natural formations such as the Devil's Marbles (below) in the Northern Outback, through offbeat towns like Alice Springs and Katherine, Woomera and Coober Pedy,  and lands that support cultures rooted 60,000 years in the past. The Stuart is a legacy of World War II, named after explorer John McDouall Stuart, the most famous of all Australia's inland explorers. The Stuart is fully paved --  "sealed," as Australians say -- but it's still a rough haul for all comers.


According to the rules, solar car teams will stop for 30 minutes at various checkpoints along the route. (It's worth noting that for regular passenger cars, fatigue-related crashes are common on the Stuart, so Australia upgraded rest areas to encourage drivers to stop and take the necessary breaks to successfully manage this risk.) Only limited maintenance tasks (no repairs) are allowed during a car's  compulsory stops. In order to select a suitable place for overnight stops alongside the highway, teams can extend their driving period for a maximum of 10 minutes; that extra driving time will be compensated by a starting time delay the next day. Because the Stuart is a public road, the cars have to adhere to the normal traffic regulations. But after midday, when the sun is in the west, it's advantageous to drive on the right side of the highway, provided, of course, there's no traffic coming from the opposite direction. So the drivers tend to take advantage of the Stuart's sunny side and a favorable road camber in order to capture the maximum amount of solar energy -- an infraction that officials seem to ignore.


In the inaugural competition in 1982, 23 teams competed, completing the run down the Stuart at an average speed of 67 kilometers per hour (42 miles per hour). In 2005, the Nuna 3 entry from Delft University of Technology touched speeds in excess of 100 km/hour.  
The average speed has shot up to 103 kph (64 mph). This led to some major regulation changes concerning safety. 


The somewhat eccentric towns along the Stuart are something that solar car teams aren't likely to forget anytime soon. Woomera’s major features are a supermarket, liquor store and library. Pimba’s main attraction is a water tank. At Glendambo, passersby can use an emergency phone and wash their clothes at a bore tap outside the Mobil station -- they can even take a dipper of water from the rain water in tanks, if they ask nicely.  Erldunda, not known for being a friendly town, does have a shower that visitors can use for $4. You'll be reading more about small-town life along the Stuart in the days to come.


The Stuart Highway is an inhospitable scratch down Australia's back -- it tests not just machines but people, as does the World Solar Challenge. So when the U-M Solar Car Team comes home, ask them about the Stuart. You'll probably find that their world view is at least a little different than the one they took with them to Australia.

The World Solar Challenge -- A Long Run Down the Stuart Highway


The World Solar Challenge runs about 3,200 kilometers on Australia's Stuart Highway, north to south, Darwin to Adelaide -- through tropical rainforests, across the savannah country, through barren desert to the fertile coastal regions of the south. U-M's Infinium and its rivals will pass breathtaking natural formations such as the Devil's Marbles (below) in the Northern Outback, through offbeat towns like Alice Springs and Katherine, Woomera and Coober Pedy,  and lands that support cultures rooted 60,000 years in the past. The Stuart is a legacy of World War II, named after explorer John McDouall Stuart, the most famous of all Australia's inland explorers. The Stuart is fully paved --  "sealed," as Australians say -- but it's still a rough haul for all comers.


According to the rules, solar car teams will stop for 30 minutes at various checkpoints along the route. (It's worth noting that for regular passenger cars, fatigue-related crashes are common on the Stuart, so Australia upgraded rest areas to encourage drivers to stop and take the necessary breaks to successfully manage this risk.) Only limited maintenance tasks (no repairs) are allowed during a car's  compulsory stops. In order to select a suitable place for overnight stops alongside the highway, teams can extend their driving period for a maximum of 10 minutes; that extra driving time will be compensated by a starting time delay the next day. Because the Stuart is a public road, the cars have to adhere to the normal traffic regulations. But after midday, when the sun is in the west, it's advantageous to drive on the right side of the highway, provided, of course, there's no traffic coming from the opposite direction. So the drivers tend to take advantage of the Stuart's sunny side and a favorable road camber in order to capture the maximum amount of solar energy -- an infraction that officials seem to ignore.


In the inaugural competition in 1982, 23 teams competed, completing the run down the Stuart at an average speed of 67 kilometers per hour (42 miles per hour). In 2005, the Nuna 3 entry from Delft University of Technology touched speeds in excess of 100 km/hour.  
The average speed has shot up to 103 kph (64 mph). This led to some major regulation changes concerning safety. 


The somewhat eccentric towns along the Stuart are something that solar car teams aren't likely to forget anytime soon. Woomera’s major features are a supermarket, liquor store and library. Pimba’s main attraction is a water tank. At Glendambo, passersby can use an emergency phone and wash their clothes at a bore tap outside the Mobil station -- they can even take a dipper of water from the rain water in tanks, if they ask nicely.  Erldunda, not known for being a friendly town, does have a shower that visitors can use for $4. You'll be reading more about small-town life along the Stuart in the days to come.


The Stuart Highway is an inhospitable scratch down Australia's back -- it tests not just machines but people, as does the World Solar Challenge. So when the U-M Solar Car Team comes home, ask them about the Stuart. You'll probably find that their world view is at least a little different than the one they took with them to Australia.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The World Solar Challenge -- Coming Up Fast


In 1982, Australian Hans Tholstrup drove the first solar-powered car ("Quiet Achiever") almost 2,800 miles between Sydney and Perth in 20 days -- 10 days faster than the first gasoline-powered car to do so. Following his dusty "roll about," Tholstrup founded the World Solar Challenge, which has become the world championship of solar car racing. The event has also is one of many pivotal points in the history of solar energy.

You'll be reading more about the World Solar Challenge in the coming weeks (10/25 - 10/31) as I follow the University of Michigan Solar Car team, which turned 20 in 2009. The team has built 10 cars in that time. Five have won national championships; three placed third in world competition. And none of those races was inconsequential.

Crossing the Australian outback, from Darwin to Adelaide (north to south), on the Stuart Highway, powered only by sunlight, is a monumental undertaking. Here are some basics. If you compare a solar car with the cars that we drive daily, think of the battery as if it were the gas tank, and solar array as if it were the gas pump -- except the gas pump that sucks the money out of your wallet doesn't have an infinite supply of energy, as the sun does. An "optimizer" gets the energy from the array to the battery. You might think of an optimizer as an oil refinery that's small enough and light enough to have on board the car.

At some point in every race, the team must ask a question: Do you put the array power output directly into the motor, or do you put some of it in the battery? The weatherman figures mightily into the answer -- if it’s cloudy, then a solar car's dependent on its battery, and driving too fast in cloudy conditions can drain the battery quickly, leaving you with the aggravating task of punching up roadside assistance, which is never close by in the Outback. So the sophistication of the battery is critical.

However, as you might expect, the solar cells are the primary technology. In the University of Michigan's 2009 car, Infinium, the team has connected more than 40 individual cells to get the necessary voltage (140V) and power (5+ kilowatt hours). Previous cars had many more cells, but as photovoltaic technology advanced, the power density increased, enabling fewer cells to produce as much or more power than cells in earlier arrays.

The car also needs a mastermind in its circuitry. Here's another car analogy. Think of the solar cells as the number of gallons in your tank. Each battery cell has a small printed circuit that reports minimum and maximum voltage, temperature and current. An on-board system monitors all of the cells about every 100 milliseconds to control the function of the battery. So the car’s "brain" has to be at the top of its game.

Having said all of that, I must identify the most important element for each solar car in the event: its team. They take care of all logistics that get them from Point A to Point B. That includes feeding and housing everyone and keeping the caravan of accompanying vehicles gassed and on-the-move -- the Michigan team's convoy consists of a semi-trailer and its tractor, a weather van outfitted with high-tech instrumentation and students who know how to use it, the "lead" and "chase" vans with flashing yellow lights that protect the solar car from crazy or curious drivers, and a pickup with an array manipulator for media stops and after-race charging. Each of these vehicles has its own energy problems because of the need to operate computers, radios and cell phones.

The team also engineers PR, sponsorship, media relations, Internet support and business management.

If you want a look at what goes into a team's effort in the World Solar Challenge, check out "Continuum: Against All Odds," which won Best Short Documentary at the All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival, held July 10-11 in Hollywood. The documentary film is about the Continuum, the 2007 Michigan Solar Car and the team's dramatic showing in that year's World Solar Challenge. The movie chronicles the story of the team as it bounced back from a crippling crash. With its promising solar concentrator system, the team started off with high hopes. The car collided with a support vehicle and was sidelined just after the race began. The team worked through the night to get Continuum up and running again, and they managed to finish the 2007 World Solar Challenge in 7th place.

Read more about the University of Michigan Solar Car team at http://solarcar.engin.umich.edu.

The World Solar Challenge -- Coming Up Fast


In 1982, Australian Hans Tholstrup drove the first solar-powered car ("Quiet Achiever") almost 2,800 miles between Sydney and Perth in 20 days -- 10 days faster than the first gasoline-powered car to do so. Following his dusty "roll about," Tholstrup founded the World Solar Challenge, which has become the world championship of solar car racing. The event has also is one of many pivotal points in the history of solar energy.

You'll be reading more about the World Solar Challenge in the coming weeks (10/25 - 10/31) as I follow the University of Michigan Solar Car team, which turned 20 in 2009. The team has built 10 cars in that time. Five have won national championships; three placed third in world competition. And none of those races was inconsequential.

Crossing the Australian outback, from Darwin to Adelaide (north to south), on the Stuart Highway, powered only by sunlight, is a monumental undertaking. Here are some basics. If you compare a solar car with the cars that we drive daily, think of the battery as if it were the gas tank, and solar array as if it were the gas pump -- except the gas pump that sucks the money out of your wallet doesn't have an infinite supply of energy, as the sun does. An "optimizer" gets the energy from the array to the battery. You might think of an optimizer as an oil refinery that's small enough and light enough to have on board the car.

At some point in every race, the team must ask a question: Do you put the array power output directly into the motor, or do you put some of it in the battery? The weatherman figures mightily into the answer -- if it’s cloudy, then a solar car's dependent on its battery, and driving too fast in cloudy conditions can drain the battery quickly, leaving you with the aggravating task of punching up roadside assistance, which is never close by in the Outback. So the sophistication of the battery is critical.

However, as you might expect, the solar cells are the primary technology. In the University of Michigan's 2009 car, Infinium, the team has connected more than 40 individual cells to get the necessary voltage (140V) and power (5+ kilowatt hours). Previous cars had many more cells, but as photovoltaic technology advanced, the power density increased, enabling fewer cells to produce as much or more power than cells in earlier arrays.

The car also needs a mastermind in its circuitry. Here's another car analogy. Think of the solar cells as the number of gallons in your tank. Each battery cell has a small printed circuit that reports minimum and maximum voltage, temperature and current. An on-board system monitors all of the cells about every 100 milliseconds to control the function of the battery. So the car’s "brain" has to be at the top of its game.

Having said all of that, I must identify the most important element for each solar car in the event: its team. They take care of all logistics that get them from Point A to Point B. That includes feeding and housing everyone and keeping the caravan of accompanying vehicles gassed and on-the-move -- the Michigan team's convoy consists of a semi-trailer and its tractor, a weather van outfitted with high-tech instrumentation and students who know how to use it, the "lead" and "chase" vans with flashing yellow lights that protect the solar car from crazy or curious drivers, and a pickup with an array manipulator for media stops and after-race charging. Each of these vehicles has its own energy problems because of the need to operate computers, radios and cell phones.

The team also engineers PR, sponsorship, media relations, Internet support and business management.

If you want a look at what goes into a team's effort in the World Solar Challenge, check out "Continuum: Against All Odds," which won Best Short Documentary at the All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival, held July 10-11 in Hollywood. The documentary film is about the Continuum, the 2007 Michigan Solar Car and the team's dramatic showing in that year's World Solar Challenge. The movie chronicles the story of the team as it bounced back from a crippling crash. With its promising solar concentrator system, the team started off with high hopes. The car collided with a support vehicle and was sidelined just after the race began. The team worked through the night to get Continuum up and running again, and they managed to finish the 2007 World Solar Challenge in 7th place.

Read more about the University of Michigan Solar Car team at http://solarcar.engin.umich.edu.