You might not have seen it driving through the streets, but every so often you can see an orange vehicle with a white bulb outside of the engineering lab. To clarify, that is no UFO; rather, it is AU’s very own solar car.
Engineering students work on the car throughout the week, coming in and out of the garage that stores it. Students also take the project with them by designing, modeling and programming on their laptops. The car is a constant work in progress in need of upgraded components and repairs. As part of recent cosmetic improvements, sophomore engineering major Levi Vick removed some of the metal frame surrounding the small cockpit to provide easier access in and out of the car.
Currently, the team is in the process of overhauling its body to fit new regulations released by the American Solar Challenge (ASC), the organization that oversees the 2,000-mile race AU will participate in this coming July. The ASC requires multiple drivers for the long race, and at present, there are several drivers, including Vick and sophomore engineering student Matthew Milford.
The solar car can go as fast as 55 mph, and students are working to make it faster in preparations for the cross-country race.
Dr. Chad File, an engineering professor who oversees the solar car team, says that this car is the result of a nearly two-year effort. “It started out as just a dream,” File says. In the fall of last academic year, the Department of Physical Sciences and Engineering purchased the solar car at a value from Missouri Science and Technology (MST), who had recently built a new one. After a competition in October 2016 to name the solar car, it was christened Solis Corvus, which is translated loosely from Latin as “Sun Raven.”
Josh Ewing, a senior mechanical engineering major, has been a member of the project from the beginning and helped to drive the newly-acquired solar car up from MST. “The internal components are completely open-source, with exception to the motor controller, which was purchased,” says Ewing.
Students have assembled circuit boards programmed with Raspberry Pi, which operates as a miniature computer brain and records data about the car. The device offers an interface to control and monitor the car’s complex systems.
On Sept.15, the crew took the solar car out for a rolling resistance test, as well as to log power readings from the motor controller. A rolling friction test involves speeding up, then letting off the accelerator. The distance between letting off and the car stopping is measured, then put in an equation to determine friction between the wheels and the surface.
After early technical difficulties that delayed field testing, the solar car was ready to move. It takes a number of students to assist in transferring the solar car from the garage in Fine Arts to Macholtz Stadium. With a crew wearing reflective orange vests, the solar car was towed by a utility vehicle. Once the crew arrived, the car was released, and they got to work setting it up to run laps. After further delays, the car was taken back to the garage.
“The solar car is really all about being a tool to teach students,” File says. “It’s an amazing opportunity that gives real hands-on experience.”
The engineering program graduated three students last year and is currently in the process of integrating new freshman into it. “We still have around 15 students that participate on the solar car,” says Josh Ewing.
The Department of Physical Sciences and Engineering also has new faculty involved with the solar car.
Dr. Willis Troy and Dr. Kyung Shin Kang are both first-year professors in engineering and are excited to work on the project.
Larry George is a mechanical engineering advisor for the department and is also an advisor for the solar car. “My goal is to get more non-engineering students involved in more ways,” George says. “There are many parts to the solar car project that exist outside of just engineering.”
Freshman business student Chris Newman is also part of the solar car team. His job is to help finance the solar car by reaching out to donors and pitching the program.
Caleb Conrad, a sophomore engineering student, encourages students to join the team. “I can deal with the micro and motor controllers or circuit boards, but other people are good at marketing or making graphics or raising funds,” says Conrad. “We also need those kinds of skills for the [solar car] program.”