It took 52 hours, 59 minutes, and 43 seconds. But the University of Michigan triumphed in the 2005 North American Solar Challenge as Momentum, its solar car, crossed the finish line last month.
The course of the 10-day race took competitors on a 2500-mile route along U.S. Route 75 and the Trans-Canada Highway from Austin, Texas, to Calgary through open highways and city traffic alike. Cars from 20 university teams set out on this grueling journey, powered only by the sun. Momentum maintained an average speed of 46.2 mph.
"Team Momentum spent two years perfecting this vehicle, and it's wonderful to see their hard work and dedication rewarded," said Ronald Gibala, interim dean of the U of M College of Engineering.
Momentum gets its juice from 3000 space-grade gallium-arsenide solar cells. The car's electrical system feeds this energy into the in-hub electric motor when the car is running or into lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. The car itself is 5.9 ft wide by 16.4 ft long by 3.6 ft high and weighs under 700 lb. Its chassis is made from advanced carbon fibers and Kevlar composites.
About 200 students worked on the project, divided among engineering, strategy, operations, and business teams. Twenty of these students travelled with the car to the North American Solar Challenge. Michael Adam, Joe Belte, and Max Ross had the honor of driving the car during the race.
This wasn't some madcap race out of the movies, though. The NASC puts each entry through demanding qualifying and technical inspections. Also, a safety vehicle with rooftop hazard flashers must lead and follow each solar car during the race. An official observer accompanies each solar car caravan and alerts teams to any safety issues.
The University of Minnesota took second place with a time of 54:11:35. Its car, the Borealis III, weighs just 370 lb. Third place went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a time of 56:34:43. Its car, the 375-lb Tesseract, features 2732 space-grade triple-junction solar cells and 512 Li-ion batteries.
Meanwhile, Stanford University won the stock class. CalSol, the team from the University of California, Berkeley, took second in that division. Next up for the University of Michigan and many of these other teams is September's World Solar Challenge in Australia, which includes both industry and university teams.
The NASC is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, Natural Resources Canada, the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, TransAlta, the University of Calgary, CSI Wireless, AMD, and Manitoba Transportation and Government Services. Also, each team fielded its own sponsors for support.