Ready, Set, Solar!

Endurance was the name of the game last week for student engineers on the UT Solar Vehicles Team as they persevered to pull off sixth place at this year’s Formula Sun Grand Prix.

Endurance was the name of the game for a group of UT engineers last week as they persevered against sweltering three-digit temperatures and last-minute equipment failures to pull off sixth place at this year’s Formula Sun Grand Prix.

This video shows two angles from a GoPro camera attached to the team's new TexSun solar car. The first angle is a test run of the car the Friday before competition without the body (array) attached. The second angle is taken during one of the actual race days. Footage provided by team member Fred Engelkemeir, an electrical engineering graduate student.

The University of Texas at Austin Solar Vehicles Team (UTSVT) raced its newest solar car, the TexSun, for the Formula Sun event, held June 24-29 at the Circuit of The Americas complex.

UTSVT served as the local university host for Formula Sun, which is an annual collegiate solar car race. This was the first time the race had taken place on an official Formula 1 track.

Ten teams from universities around the country and one from Canada competed in this year’s race. Circuit of The Americas sponsored the UT Solar Vehicles Team, covering $50,000 of costs associated with building the TexSun vehicle.

The Formula Sun Grand Prix kicked off with three days of “scrutineering,” in which teams must pass a rigorous set of regulations in order to enter their cars in the race. The race itself took place over the last three days of the event, with the winner being determined by the most laps completed over the three-day racing period. The Oregon State University Solar Car Team took first place this year with 193 laps, followed by Illinois State with 192 laps, then Iowa State with 191 laps. UT Austin finished with 121 laps.

Electrical and computer engineering professor Gary Hallock, who has been the team’s adviser for more than a decade, said the scrutineering process went very well for the TexSun, much to everyone’s relief. Hallock estimated that UT was the only school racing a new car, which can come with many unforeseeable issues.

“This is one of the hardest races to qualify for,” Hallock said. “They are very strict with regulations. [For us] there were some little things here, some little things there. We didn’t have to change anything major, thank goodness.”

Despite the success of scrutineering, brake failures during dynamics testing on Wednesday forced the team to stay up the night before the race replacing the car’s brake rotor. Tire blowouts during the first two days of racing set the team back several additional hours.

Mechanical engineering senior Raul Molina, who was one of the team’s few mechanical engineers and one of two drivers for the race, said each setback throughout the week made the endurance part of the Grand Prix much tougher, especially having to replace an entire part of the car at the last minute.

“You stand around for about 10 minutes, try not to panic – panic anyway – and then you go fix it,” Molina said. “The whole time it’s been like putting out fires.”

UTSVT is a volunteer, student-run organization comprised of approximately 50 members, most of whom are undergraduate engineering students. Hallock said the team has been dedicated to funding and building the TexSun for the last three years.

“After 2010 we decided our old car was no longer competitive, so we put all our focus on the new car,” he said. “It’s a multi-year process, not only from a technical standpoint but from the fundraising aspect as well.”

formula sun team

Members of the UT Solar Vehicles Team prep their TexSun solar car and the second driver of the day, aerospace engineering graduate student Benton Greene, to race during the last leg of the Formula Sun Grand Prix's final race day.

The TexSun’s design differs from the team’s previous car partially because it has a smaller amount of surface area, allowing it to better cope with issues such as air resistance.

“You want the car to be as aerodynamic as possible to reduce the amount of power you’re wasting just pushing yourself through the air,” said aerospace engineering graduate student Benton Greene. “You want it to be streamlined and you want the surface to be smooth.”

TexSun’s energy is supplemented by a rechargeable battery pack, which cannot be recharged once the racing for the day has begun. Fred Engelkemeir, electrical engineering graduate student, said teams use various strategies to conserve their car’s battery life throughout the day, as well as to accelerate and improve lap times.

“The reason for a battery pack is that solar panels only put out a little over a kilowatt, which is about the power of a hairdryer,” Engelkemeir said. “To accelerate takes a lot of power, so you basically accelerate with power from the batteries.”

From the car’s base to its software to its battery, UTSVT students break into sub-teams that focus on each aspect of the car and then put it all together to create a working vehicle.

“We’ve been working through a lot of issues that came with the new car, but it got better,” said UTSVT president Neda Abdul-Razzak, mechanical engineering and psychology senior. “We all hoped to finish first place, though completing and racing the car in and of itself is extremely rewarding.”

The Public Day event, which was held on the last day of racing, included solar energy exhibits and a solar car model workshop for kids. The event was supported in part through the generosity of Nissan, Plantronics, Schlumberger, Sunpower, Texas Motor Sports/Yamaha and the Texas Solar Energy Society.

TexSun Solar Car Supporters

The following organizations are supporters of the UT Solar Vehicles Team's newest solar car, TexSun:

  • Circuit of The Americas
  • Cockrell School's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Lockheed Martin
  • Cirrus Logic
  • Alfe Heat Treating
  • YPS Facility Services
  • Hexcel
  • Sofec
  • National Instruments
  • SolidWorks
  • General Motors
  • University Co-op
  • Schlumberger
  • Fluor
  • Chevron
  • RNR
  • Speedy Metals
  • Baer Engineering
  • Polymer Dynamics