ASU Gives Us A Deeper Look Into Solar Car Competitions

Unlike many press releases we see about solar car races, a recent one from Arizona State University gives us a lot more detail on the effort that goes into making a solar racecar. Before we dive into the process, let’s look at why this matters and what we usually get from university PR.

Why These Solar Car Races Matter

Here and there, CleanTechnica covers news of solar car races, largely done by university students. It may seem silly to cover these stories year after year when the commercial EV world has not only taken off, but even the cheapest and most worn-out of mass production EVs would leave these cars in the dust. But, it’s important to remember the EV world’s roots.

For example, a solar car competition in Australia led a GM team to develop new EV technology. They not only won the race handily with their roly poly-looking car (the Sunraycer), but this led directly to GM building the Impact, a prototype that led to the EV1. As the documentary Who Killed The Electric Car covers well, this was the first time modern EVs hit the road in any serious numbers, even if it was only in a handful of US states. In the end, GM took the cars back that they had leased out and crushed them, but this inspired something that almost nobody would dispute played an important role in the future of the EV industry:

As we know, Tesla broke through and proved that mass-produced electric cars are not only possible, but desirable, and even profitable. This put pressure on other automakers to step up and build their own electric cars. Now, we’re seeing some serious progress being made toward putting a great number of EVs on the road.

In other words, yesterday’s seemingly silly solar car races led to today’s EV boom. They not only proved the technology out, but they spread knowledge and experience to people who would later work in the industry. They also inspired people to get involved.

What We Usually Hear About These Races

Most of the time, when we see some university’s press release about their solar team, we see a picture of the completed car, some details about the student team, a few quotes from them, and facts that make the university look good. Some of them (in the process of pumping the university) talk about how solar racing gives students an edge in their future career of automotive engineering.

While these releases are great in some ways, they aren’t usually very satisfying to CleanTechnica readers because they don’t give us much detail on the car itself or the process of making it. While many of us are here for the stonks, some of us are here for the nerdy stuff that makes the stonks go.

A Recent ASU Press Release Did A Much Better Job

In a recent press release, ASU did something they don’t usually do: give us a deeper look behind the scenes.

They tell us the story of this year’s Solar Devils racing team as they prepare to race a vehicle in the 2023 American Solar Challenge. The team started in the summer of 2021 when Ayman Hangalay decided he wanted to get more hands-on experience working with EVs and automotive technology.

“I was fascinated by the vehicles other universities in the same competition were able to create,” Hangalay says, “and that inspired me to rise to the challenge of trying to emulate that at ASU.”

He has since graduated, but still works with the team to help them prepare for future races. While building prototypes is easy compared to mass producing cars, building a one-off vehicle that needs to beat the work of other engineering students is a lot harder than making something to sell to people.

The team’s leader described the process, and how their classroom experience led them to success:

“Designing components of the vehicle relies on the fundamentals of structural mechanics: the exterior shell on aerodynamics and fluid dynamics, the battery system-to-solar panel hookup on circuitry knowledge, and CAD skills to perform all computer-designed models and simulations for testing,” he says. “The engineering curriculum at ASU does a good job of teaching the fundamentals that end up finding their way into all aspects of the building process.”

But, he says, not everything can be learned in a classroom.

“Making a racing car from scratch that runs on solar power is a huge project with lots of logistics to take care of,” says Anoop Grewal, a lecturer in the Fulton Schools who serves as the Solar Devils faculty adviser. “The students get to learn a lot of practical lessons they will not get in classes, such as how to source parts, how things fail in real life, manufacturing issues and more.”

In other words, this experience prepares students to work in the real world, where a company has limited funding, suppliers who may or may not deliver, and parts that can and will sometimes fail. Knowing what to do in theory is great, but knowing how to guide work through challenges is something that will make these students a lot more valuable to the companies they end up working for.

The team also builds relationships with people already in the industry. Not only did they need to come up with money to build a solar racecar, but they also got help and assistance from established experts, including an engineer at Tesla who helps guide the team. Once again, this helps with career goals, but also shows that these teams help the industry itself. Getting things done requires knowing people, and this is a great chance to get to know people.

“This is such a special project because it not only gives students an opportunity to engage in a challenging and incredibly rewarding experience,” Hangalay says, “but we’re also helping shape future engineers who will hopefully gain interest in renewable energy and change the world for the better.”

There’s a lot more information and more photos at the ASU website, so if you’re curious, be sure to check it out!

Featured Image: Members of Solar Devils during a spring 2022 semester design meeting. Photo by Erika Gronek, image provided by Arizona State University (ASU).


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