A team of University of Kentucky engineering students is gearing up to qualify for a national competition where brains count more than brawn and creativity is essential.
That’s because the team is building a solar-powered car with limited funds and parts salvaged from older models built by previous teams.
The goal is to get the vehicle, dubbed Gato Del Sol V, assembled, tested and ready for the American Solar Challenge, a cross-country race from Ohio to South Dakota that covers between 1,500 and 1,800 miles.
And, the team members hope to learn something along the way.
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“The team members who are a part of the process learn a lot of critical skills. For the engineering teams, applying the theory concepts used in class to a real-world problem is a great experience in becoming a better engineer,” said Joshua Morgan, team leader and senior electrical engineering major.
The team currently has about 20 members who engineer, build the car, run tests, and handle social media, marketing and fundraising. There are three sub-teams: mechanical, electrical and computer science, and business.
The Gato Del Sol V, UK’s fifth solar car, was originally completed in July 2014, and is powered by a single 7kW (9 HP) electric motor on the rear wheel. A special device, called the motor controller, is used to convert energy from the solar array and battery packs to drive the electric motor.
Alex Allamon, a freshman engineering major, is a part of the business team in charge of everything except building the car.
“We reach out to sponsors and get our name out there,” Allamon said. “We reach out to newspapers to get support because we work really hard to compete in the summer competitions and we want the city and university to recognize that.”
The solar car is a race vehicle that gets energy from the sun through solar panels.
“Battery packs on the car store excess energy when it is not immediately needed for driving,” Morgan said.
The team has recorded a top speed of 71 mph on public roads. The car will go faster, but the team hasn’t been brave enough to try, Morgan said. The team has used the same motor for all five solar cars over the last 15 years.
“Our team spent about $25,000 to build Gato V,” Morgan said.
The team took a lot of “expensive components” from the previous solar car, the Gato IV. To build the car from scratch, the team estimated, would cost around $60,000. The group relies on donations to purchase tools and materials.
The solar car team at UK was started in 1999 by students.
Morgan has been on the team for four years and has experienced the challenges of competing against other engineering schools.
“There is a race every year, called the Formula Sun Grand Prix, which is a track-style race so it’s usually on a Formula-1 track,” Morgan said. “It is based on who can get the most laps in a certain amount.”
Every other year there is an American Solar Challenge, which is a cross-country race from anywhere between 1,500-1,800 miles, he said.
This coming summer the competition, the FSGP, will be held in Pittsburgh and the cross-country race, the American Solar Challenge, will run from Ohio to South Dakota.
UK did not participate in the cross-country race in the American Solar Challenge in 2014, but the team hopes to qualify for the race this summer by excelling in the FSGP.
To practice, the team drives the solar car around Lexington. Since one of the races is on public roads, driving around town helps all of the drivers acclimate to driving in traffic, while also helping the engineering teams discover problems that may arise.
In addition to that, the team goes to a lot of elementary and middle schools to get the word out about the car and to encourage younger students who have an interest in engineering to pursue their dreams.