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Minnesota Solar Car Project Combines Hard Work with Fun

Michigan, Minnesota and Polytechnique Montreal finished first, second and third Monday in the American Solar Challenge, a solar car race that gives engineering students an opportunity to put their studies to a practical, real world test.

Mary Quam Herbers waited Monday, camera in hand, for her son Jake and the rest of his University of Minnesota solar car team to turn onto 6th Avenue SE and into the Victory parking lot.

Never mind that after eight grueling days and 1,700 miles of travel powered only by the sun, the team from the University of Michigan was going to finish first. Michigan, with its bigger budget and fancy tractor-trailer support rig, nearly always finishes first. What mattered Monday was that the Gophers’ squad of engineering students, some of whom have spent the past two years preparing for this competition, were about to take a respectable second — 10 minutes behind the Wolverines.

And in the race for solar car bragging rights, finishing second to the maize and blue isn’t all bad.

“He’s loved doing this,” Herbers said of her son, a senior from Rochester. “It’s a very practical experience. And he’s very interested in renewable energy.”

Twenty solar cars were initially put in to compete in the American Solar Challenge, a solar car race that ended Monday near TCF Bank Stadium. After inspections and qualifying runs on a track, nine cars qualified to hit the road in Austin, Texas eight days earlier. Eight finished.

As “Here Comes the Sun” and “Walking on Sunshine” blared from nearby speakers, Michigan, Minnesota and Polytechnique Montreal finished first, second and third Monday in the race’s final heat from La Crosse, Wis. Michigan and Minnesota finished first and second overall.

For the 30-40 students from each school who work on the project — only about a dozen get to be on each’s school’s actual race team — it’s a time-consuming, sleep-depriving undertaking that gives them hands-on experience working with other engineering students from a range of disciplines.

Plus, it’s just kind of cool.

Michael Ellis, a junior, was the driver of Centaurus III, the Minnesota car, on the last leg of the race Monday. Ellis, stuffed into a low-profile cab on a maroon car that can go as fast as 90 miles per hour, but is required to strictly follow all speed limits, said it can be a bumpy, hot and uncomfortable ride. There is no air conditioner in the 16-foot, 390-pound composite car. There is no radio. The name of the game for the sleek, solar-cell covered car is speed — sun-generated, battery-stored speed. No extra weight is wanted.

“I’m really proud. Getting second is really nice,” Ellis said. “I’m sort of hopeful we can move away from gasoline.”

Team leader Brian Dean said Minnesota students have worked hard over the years to establish one of the top, solar-car programs in the nation. Last year, the U hit the Outback in Australia. This year, each day was filled with stress, such as how far to push the car and how best to take advantage of the weather and the road to ensure the best performance. Students who are studying mechanical engineering, electrical systems, aerodynamics come together to make it work.

“The level of experience and expertise you get from this is really something you can’t get just from college,” Dean said. “It’s also pretty exhausting, to be honest.”

As the race gets closer, team members are known to put 30-40 hours per week into the project, said Dan Vogl, a Minnesota graduate now working as an aerospace engineer with Cirrus Aircraft in Duluth. Once the race starts, teams are on the road nine hours a day. Much of the rest of the day is spent getting ready for the next stage. Sleep is in short supply.

But the solar car project is a rare opportunity for engineering students to put their studies to a practical, real world test. And it’s worth the exhaustion, Vogl said.

The bonus?

“It definitely helped me get a job in the field,” he said. “Where else can you do this?”

©2014 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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