U.S. Students Compete in Solar Car Challenge

In this annual event, teams from high schools nationwide flock to Texas Motor Speedway to see who can build the best solar-powered automobile.

by Gordon Dickson, Fort Worth Star-Telegram / July 21, 2015

(TNS) -- Some North Texans are lamenting the arrival of triple-digit heat, but several hundred high school students — many of them likely future engineers — are thrilled about it.

They’re participants in the Solar Car Challenge, an annual event in which teams from high schools across the United States flock to Texas Motor Speedway to see who can build the best solar-powered automobile.

Twenty-six teams, including several from schools in North Texas, brought their homemade vehicles to the speedway’s 1.5-mile tri-oval for a spin. The event began Monday and continues through Thursday.

The goal isn’t to build the fastest car, but rather the one that can go the longest without stopping for a battery charge.

“We’re proud of the frame we built for ourselves four years ago, just from scrap steel we got from local companies,” said Nicholas Iglesias, a senior at All Saints Episcopal School in Fort Worth. The school founded a solar car team in 2012 and has since been modifying and improving the design.

“We have six solar panels, six batteries, 72 volts,” said Iglesias, who plans to study biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis.

Although some of the experienced and well-funded teams can build cars capable of traveling 60 mph, the real challenge is designing a car that can run all day without stopping for a recharge, said Chris Jones, a former contestant who serves as the event’s technical director and head judge. Cars that can go only 20 to 30 mph are just as competitive as their faster counterparts.

“We get teams out there going slow, but they build a car that’s reliable,” Jones said. “If you’re out of the event for six hours making a repair, that slower team is going to catch you.

“We've had teams in past doing upward of 700 or 800 miles in this event,” he said. “The amount of power one of these cars has is just a little more than it takes to run a hair dryer, and they’re doing 800 miles with that.”

Beyond the competition, the idea is to get students interested in engineering, science and alternative energy sources, Jones said.

This year’s event features a new division with electric-solar powered cars, which have solar cells attached to permanent charging stations.

Several cars were built in the shape of a UFO, as typified in comic books, with most of the outer skin covered in solar panels. Other teams went with more of a dune-buggy design, using a box-shaped body with solar panels for a rectangular roof.

The emphasis was on making the cars as light as possible, yet still including enough batteries and solar panels and a reliable motor to make them go.

Naje Safford, 18, and other students from various Detroit-area high schools are competing in the challenge. The group was formed as part of a Heroes Alliance after-school program, and they competed with a vehicle named Solar Flare.

“This is our first car so we didn’t really know what to expect,” said Safford, who plans to attend Wayne State University beginning in the fall. Safford planned to study computer engineering but more recently has become enamored of mechanical engineering because of his work on the Solar Flare project.

“It's pretty heavy. We used black pipe, but we should have gone with tubing,” he said. “But we have two large solar panels on top. They're kicking out about a half-kilowatt every hour.”

“We have fat tires and our suspension is from Detroit, because we have bad roads,” he quipped. “We kind of have that style. But next year we're going to go way smaller. We're going to shorten it and make it narrow and shorten the wheelbase.”

Other North Texas schools competing in the event include Ben Barber Career Tech Academy in Mansfield, Byron Nelson High in Trophy Club, Coppell High, Grapevine High, Prosper High and Wylie East High School.

The event has taken place at Texas Motor Speedway 10 times.

©2015 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.