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A solar-powered titan is about to rise in Calgary.
Kirstin Morrell/The Gauntlet

U of C solar car team right on road

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Driving from Austin, Texas to Calgary without a fill-up? A University of Calgary team plans to do just that, as part of the North American Solar Challenge in July.

"It's more than just building a solar car," said project manager Rashaad Sader. "It's 50 per cent engineering and 50 per cent education."

And as a new team, with a lot to learn, there is no time to lose.

"We should be rolling in a week an a half," said Sader of their test car, an important step towards the finished product.

"Other teams have had previous generations to build on," Sader said, explaining why the U of C team is constructing an initial proof-of-concept test car, which will give the team of drivers more real-world experience to supplement their driving simulator sessions. Sader emphasized that this experience is critical to winning the NASC.

"An experienced driver is 20 per cent more efficient than an inexperienced driver," he said.

Hoping to make up for inexperience with technical expertise and a drive to win are third-year mechanical engineering students Joanna Desjardins and Natalie Panek. Desjardins said the U of C Calgary Solar Team has serious hopes of winning the race. Other team members are focused on the challenge.

"Even if we don't win, it will show we are willing to take on innovative projects," said Panek.

"At the beginning it was a lot of learning," said Desjardins about the steep learning curve the team is facing in its first year.

Aside from the engineering challenges facing them, Desjardins and Panek will face the physical challenge of driving during the race. They and others are mentally and physically preparing by spending five days a week with a personal trainer in the Fitness and Lifestyle Centre.

Certified personal trainer and U of C graduate Sophia Pin puts the driving team through classes such as core conditioning and weight training every weekday starting in April.

Pin designed a fitness plan that will allow the drivers to endure up to six hours each day in a physical environment that includes high heat and constant vibration. They will be training until July, but the benefits are already beginning to show.

"They've really come a long way," said Pin, about both their fitness and level of confidence that they can complete the NASC race.

According to Sader, this discomfort comes from the car's design.

"The driving position is very reclined compared to a regular car," he said. "The way to improve your aerodynamics is to make the car flat and narrow."

Sader says this leads to instability in the vehicle, which is another reason why the drivers must be trained so thoroughly.

The test car, which the team plans to have ready next week, shares many characteristics with the final product, with some important differences.

"Our test car is steel, but the final car will be aluminum," said team member Travis Klassen, of aluminum's superiority as a light-weight material.

In another cost-saving measure, the test car uses thousands of consumer rechargeable batteries, donated by Pure Energy Visions Inc. of Richmond Hill, Ontario. According to Sader, the final car will use cutting-edge lithium ion polymer batteries.

Electrical manager Ryan Bifford said that the technologies researched for events like the NASC have a direct impact on our everyday lives.

"The battery technology that is developed filters all the way down to your cell phone," Bifford said. "And the electric motor is becoming more efficient. Vespa is developing an electric scooter that will be using a motor very similar to ours."

However, he does not foresee a future in which everyone drives solar cars.

"The reason we don't have solar cars is that there isn't enough energy in the surface of a car," Bifford said."Say the area of a car is 10 square metres, that would be 10 kilowatts, which would be about 10 horsepower."

Current solar technology, Bifford said, is only 20 per cent efficient, which means the team's solar car will be run on about two horsepower.

"What you'll see in the future are solar panels on garages to charge people's cars."

And while it is not currently economically feasible, Bifford said it is only a matter of time.

"One of the professors has a cottage that's powered entirely by solar energy. It's becoming cool to have an electric car or a low-emission vehicle."

That is part of the reason as many as 100 U of C students have contributed to the team's effort so far. Team member James Snell said the "coolness factor" is important for him, and that it is a unique opportunity to apply what he has learned at the university.

"A big motivating factor is that there's a perception that the U of C is an underdog school," said Snell.

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