One of the most foundational and transformational experiences in my life was working on the University of Michigan Solar Car Team. I had the opportunity to work on and race the 1997 car Wolverine, and to serve as Project Manager for the 1999 car, MaizeBlaze. Wolverine raced across the US in Sunrayce 97, and MaizeBlaze raced across both the States in Sunrayce 99 and the Australian Outback in the World Solar Challenge 99.
As I write this, teams racing the Panasonic World Solar Challenge 2007 competition are making final preparations before the race start tomorrow morning in Darwin, Australia. The University of Michigan is again very well represented with their car, Continuum. It has been 20 years since the first solar car race across Australia, won by the GM vehicle “Sunraycer.” Since then, the technology has increased dramatically. The last race in 2005 was so quick that rules were changed to make an even more challenging competition. (Teams were traveling the speed limit over the entire 1,800 mile course.) Cars in the top class must have much more upright seating positions, with steering wheels and a smaller solar array. These rules seek to increase the power required, and lessen the power available to teams in this category.
Continuum responded to the rule changes with a risky but very innovative design innovation. In this category, teams have 9 m^2 of surface area from which they could collect sun, but only had 6 m^2 of solar cells they could use. Michigan, at a very great risk, spent a tremendous amount of time, effort and expense to develop a system of concentrators. The back of the car has a broad area of parabolic mirrors that concentrate the solar energy onto very small (and specially designed) solar cells that are optimised for high-sun conditions. All of this is packaged under a clear material that conforms to the very aerodynamic body shell. Furqan Nazeeri, the 1993 team manager wrote about just how much risk they took on in a post here.
I wish them the best of luck in the competition. The University of Michigan Solar Car Team is the winningest student team ever, both in the United States and in the World Solar Challenge across Australia. However, because of teams such as Honda and other well-funded corporate competitors, the team has never quite managed to win the Australian race. This race may change that streak, and it is quite possibly the most advanced vehicle designed and constructed. Please visit the team’s blog here to follow coverage from their race.
Finally, it’s a bit of a coincidence that the race starts this weekend, the final weekend of the Formula 1 racing season. I’ve gotten into Formula 1 a bit living here in Europe, and it’s known as the most technologically advanced motor sport. That said, I recently saw some photos of the Formula 1 team garage on a blog post here. Compare and contrast those to photos in the Michigan team’s blog.
After seeing both, there’s not an amazing amount of difference between the two. One has millions in funding, and the other is a group of students, but the results are amazing.
Best of luck to Continuum and the Michigan team. They have supporters literally across the globe. GO BLUE!