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Solar Settlers: 1,000-mile American Solar Challenge Sets Off Along Santa Fe Trail Racing Sustainably

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Above image credit: One of 13 solar-powered vehicles competing in the American Solar Challenge that begins Tuesday morning in Independence. (Clarence Dennis | Flatland KC)
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6 minute read

INDEPENDENCE, Missouri — An old-time feeling should fill the air in Independence Square this morning.

Adventure. Anticipation. High hopes. Contemplation.

Those sentiments at the historic Santa Fe Trail jumping-off point, where so many set off for the promise of the West, come with a journey into the unknown.

Independence’s 2021 trail blazers are a collection of college students from around the world set to compete in the American Solar Challenge (ASC), a collegiate student design competition and race that sets off Tuesday from Independence and (presumably) finishes five days later in Santa Fe, New Mexico, nearly 1,000 miles away.

Not at all similar to the 19th century covered wagon, the participating teams will leave Independence Square in hand-built cars that are completely powered by the sun’s energy.

That’s not to say that the journey will be without a few of the challenges faced by settlers so many years ago. Competitors in this year’s ASC route celebrating the Santa Fe Trail bicentennial are setting off with a similar sense of leaving Independence in the dust.

What might go wrong? What if we make it?

American Solar Challenge Route

The full Santa Fe Trail route for the 2021 ASC.
The full Santa Fe Trail route for the 2021 ASC. (Courtesy | American Solar Challenge)

“We call this a bullet car design,” Illini Solar Club member John Han said on Monday, gesturing to a space rocket-looking capsule that stands barely three feet off the ground.

“It has aerodynamic benefits,” Han said. “There’s one main aerostructure to worry about, there’s less service area, so you can then achieve a smaller frontal area.”

Even to an untrained eye, the University of Illinois club solar car, affectionately named “Brizo,” looks aerodynamic. The completely student-designed and built ride is five meters long, one meter tall and one meter wide, weighs 170 kilograms and carries a 5.33kWh lithium-ion battery.

It’s the team’s best car ever.

Over the weekend, at the Formula Sun Grand Prix (FSGP), a three-day road course track event in Topeka, Kansas, that serves as a qualifying event for Tuesday’s ASC, “Brizo” completed the minimum number of laps necessary in the non-stop 24-hour allotted period.

Despite qualifying for the ASC and hitting 50-55 mph in Topeka, Han said the aerodynamic bullet-style car should perform even better on the open road.

“Our car isn’t optimized for track performance, but should be optimal for the road race, high speeds over a long distance and efficiency,” Han said. “We’ve seen that the car is quite reliable, despite lack of time on the road.”

A recent UI graduate with a degree in computer engineering, Han has been a member of Illini Solar Club since freshman year. The Illini have ascended in finishing position in each of three races dating back to the World Solar Challenge in 2017. They finished fourth at the ASC in 2019.

Monday’s “Public Display Day” allowed competing teams to show off their car designs and chat with community members snapping photos of the futuristic machines before they set off on the southwestern journey. Five consecutive days of racing will take place between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Seven stops are planned for McPherson, Council Grove and Dodge City in Kansas, La Junta, Colorado, and Las Vegas, New Mexico, before the finish line in Santa Fe.

This year’s ASC and qualifying FSGP events featured veteran racing teams, as well as first-timers like Iowa State University’s club. Despite her team falling short of the required 80 laps in qualification due to a malfunction, materials engineering senior and ISU club Vice President Rachel Eckert was in good spirits.

“I’m just proud of the team because we had a great last day and we got the car running well. Those 33 laps were awesome,” Eckert said.

Looking back on the experience as a whole, Eckert, who drove in qualifying, was grateful she was able to see the club’s hard work in action. Years of planning and design culminated in a week racing alongside her closest friends, a campus group that lifted her from mildly interested to the driver’s seat.

Eckert’s initial interest in the ISU club was sparked by the unfamiliar building materials used to build the ultra-light cars like carbon fiber, different foams and epoxy resins. Suddenly, she was hooked.

Rachel Eckert poses alongside Iowa State University’s “Eliana.”
Rachel Eckert poses alongside Iowa State University’s “Eliana.” (Clarence Dennis | Flatland KC)

Eckert spoke of her experience as a female engineering student and now solar race car driver, in a field that is heavily dominated by men.

“I think that anyone can be an engineer and I’m happy I’ve found this team and was welcomed and included,” she said. “That’s allowed me to take a lot of initiative and learn a lot technically about the team as a whole. We currently have more girls on this team than ever before in our history.”

Such progress is echoed in the ISU club’s mission: “Change the paradigm of transportation by building a practical solar car.”

Looking forward to a profession in engineering medical materials like prosthetics or pacemakers, Eckert has enjoyed the process of discovering what is possible with the power of the sun.

“Building a car like this and coming to an event like this shows the world that making a car that uses solar power is possible. It’s possible,” Eckert said.

There are plenty of concerns heading into the 900-mile plus journey with the goal of completing as many miles as possible within the constraints of the event. Those include everything from safety driving near and on the shoulder of state highways, to high temperatures in the unairconditioned driver’s seat — and a whole lot in between.

Georgia Institute of Technology’s car flipped during last month’s slalom test during the competition’s “Scrutineering” inspection session. Junior computer engineering student Harry Kang said the body of the car took significant damage, but 90% of the car’s guts and more importantly the team’s driver were intact.

Georgia Tech’s repaired ride, following a crash sustained at last month’s "Scrutineering."
Georgia Tech’s repaired ride, following a crash sustained at last month’s “Scrutineering.” (Clarence Dennis | Flatland KC)

Despite the crash, Kang is optimistic about Georgia Tech’s upcoming effort and proud of everything that went under the hood.

“It’s really just exploring the possibilities of using solar power,” Kang said. “One thing that we are very proud of is our battery pack. It doesn’t have a capacity as big as a Tesla, but it can do 300 miles.”

Delicate solar panels less than a millimeter thick, flat tires, blowing dust and tumbleweeds, not to mention any number of mechanical issues are the top concerns for many of the experienced team members.

For University of Minnesota fifth-year mechanical engineering student Nick Kopolovic, Independence to Santa Fe in the armpit of summer may feel like Sunday drive compared to the 2019 World Solar Challenge in Australia. That race took competitors through the Outback in scorching heat and windy conditions, taking drivers around 1,000 miles from Darwin to Adelaide.

The University of Minnesota took second in the 2019 ASC. The club won the FSGP qualifier in Topeka, completing more than 170 laps around the 2.5-mile track.

Kopolovic considers his team among the favorites to win the competition, which would certainly pay off a lot of the hard work. The veteran solar racer estimates that between design and build, the club has been working on its four-seater “Freya” since 2017.

Competing in the multi-occupant division, the number of passengers in the car serves as a multiplier in the point-scoring equation, rewarding teams with a design to carry more people.

Between software licenses, building materials, fees, transportation, tools and more, Kopolovic puts a price tag of about $1 million dollars on the machine.

He says the plan is to go with two drivers for a majority of the race, any variance is up to a very important part of the team.

“We have an entire strategy team that decides how to drive and when. It’s all up to them. As a driver, what I do is try to drive as efficiently as possible, use momentum from hills and try to ease off the accelerator and get as much energy back from regenerative braking as possible,” Kopolovic said.

Competing in the ASC during his time on campus has inspired Kopolovic to pursue a career in research and design.

Nick Kopolovic (left) participates in his final American Solar Challenge this week.
Nick Kopolovic (left) participates in his final American Solar Challenge this week. (Clarence Dennis | Flatland KC)

For Kopolovic, concerns come with putting all of that research and design to the test. He’s wary of the unexpected on the Santa Fe Trail.

“You never know what might happen on the road. You could get four flats at the same time, something might fall apart, a bolt might not get tightened,” he said. “We check everything every night to make sure everything is all put together. This is my third one of these cross-country events and every time it’s something you least expect.”

Learn more about the 2021 American Solar Challenge

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