Solar cars deliver tech boost
May 7, 2013
CARBONDALE — When Noah Davis, Solar Energy International's Solar in the Schools program manager, started thinking of ways to engage high school students in learning about the ever-evolving technology, he thought back to what interested him as a teenager.
"I used to have remote control cars when I was that age, and I thought that just might be something we could use to get our program into the high schools," Davis said.
Solar in the Schools has been a part of SEI's outreach programs for several years. But it has mostly been targeted at elementary and middle school students, through efforts such as a Solar Suitcase project, in which students assemble compact solar generator kits to send to developing countries.
An ongoing curriculum development effort by Solar in the Schools also incorporates renewable energy concepts into different academic studies in elementary schools. A pilot program is in place at Sopris Elementary School in Glenwood Springs, where a solar fair is being planned for May 31, Davis said.
"It's hard to break into the high schools because their schedules are so compact, so we needed something that could fit with what they're already doing in science classes," Davis said. "It also had to be something that would be engaging and grab the students' interest."
The Solar RC (radio-controlled) Race Car program, though only in its first year, is proving to be just the ticket.
Three high school teams were assembled to build the cars this year, at Yampah Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs, Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale and Aspen High School. Other area schools will get a chance in future years, Davis said.
In all, 17 high school students are involved with the project this year, and each school team has a teacher sponsor. In addition, Solar in the Schools has its own demo car team led by Davis, along with student representatives from three middle schools in Carbondale and Aspen who are in the Solar in the Schools mentorship program.
The teams will travel to the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden on May 18, where they will demonstrate and race their cars against each other on a small track.
John Starr, a student at Yampah High, explains the solar car design he came up with for his school's team.
"It's changed since the original conception, as we tried to fit the parts and make the frame strong enough to protect the solar panel," Starr said of the delicate glass panels, which are just a 10th of a millimeter thick. "It should be stiffer and stronger, and shouldn't weigh any more than it has to.
"Something like this gives us more experience, and lets us practice some of the concepts we've already learned," Starr said.
Sun power partners
SEI, which was founded in Carbondale and is still partially based here, obtained funding for the project from organizations such as the Aspen Science Center and Garfield Clean Energy. Each of the participating schools also helped pay for their own equipment.
"We are looking for more funding partners, including private companies, to help make the program grow," Davis said.
One of those partners is Glenwood Springs-based Fiberforge, which builds light-weight carbon fiber parts for a variety of products, large and small. The company donated carbon fiber to be used on the solar cars.
Davis notes that Fiberforge grew out of the Rocky Mountain Institute's Hypercar project in the late 1990s, which was focused on developing light weight parts to improve fuel efficiency in automobiles.
It's the same with the solar cars, which Davis explained have to be as light as possible to make up for the weight of the solar cells and electric motor.
"Despite their size, the cars weigh just over three pounds," Davis said. "The cars use a very safe and efficient form of Lithium batteries, similar in chemistry to those in the Chevy Volt."
Davis' demo team car was recently clocked at just over 20 miles per hour. To scale, that would be about 200 mph for a full-size car, he said.
His team recently shot a promotional video of one of the Carbondale police officers giving chase to the solar car along town streets. The video can be found at http://www.solarenergy.org/solar-schools-sis, and is also on YouTube.
Lesson in efficiency
When it comes to the big race on May 18, though, it will be fuel efficiency, not speed, that wins the race, Davis explained.
Each car will start with the same full charge, but teams will have to make sure that charge is dispersed over the course of a 60-minute race.
"So, in the end it's an efficiency race," Davis said. "The team that has the best energy efficiency is going to win it."
Davis said there are remote control car races all over the country, and even on an international level. But this will be the first-ever solar RC car race in the United States that he's aware of.
"These are the only cars like this in the U.S.," he said.
And, make no mistake, the student teams are "kind of competitive," said Yampah student Tim Stephenson.
"Since this hasn't been done before in the U.S., it's pretty exciting to get to be a part of it," Stephenson said. "It's fun to be able to put together the solar panels, and see how they work.
"I just see this (solar technology) getting bigger and bigger, and solar power is going to be used more an more in the future," he added.
Davis said the students were naturally drawn to the project, because it is more age specific and hands-on.
"The best thing is that it is so engaging," he said. "It's not something we had to push on them at all."
Longtime Yampah science teacher Susy Ellison agreed.
"It's pretty different than any of the other solar projects we have done in the past," she said.
And, with SEI involved, she enjoyed just being able to step aside and observe the students' progress.
"I didn't know anything about how to build a solar car, so I'm learning too," Ellison said. "I was able to trust the kids who wanted to be involved, and I knew I could trust (Solar in the Schools) to show them how to do it."
The teams will also be racing their cars at the Aspen Science Center's Science Street Fair on Aug. 11 at Paepcke Park in Aspen.
Davis said he has already approached Glenwood Springs High School and Roaring Fork High in Carbondale about being involved with a team in subsequent years.
SEI's Solar in the Schools website will also include a "how-to" page, so that schools elsewhere can try their hand at building solar cars.