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They Follow the Sun

WASHINGTON to Orlando in a week and a half may not sound like much of a car race, but the vehicles competing in Sunrayce 99 this June 20-29 are not your ordinary cars. Rather than guzzling fossil fuels, they run on solar power, and each is a unique creation -- conceived, designed, built and driven by engineering students from colleges and universities across North America.
   As the Gazette went to press, Penn's 40-member team was hard at work to meet a mid-April deadline for completing its entry in what team leader Deepak Sindwani W/EAS'99 calls the "the national championship of solar car racing." The Sunrayce -- a biennial event sponsored by General Motors, the Department of Energy and the high-tech firm EDS -- is designed to showcase the benefits of solar energy and the abilities of the students to develop race-worthy vehicles.

   Engineering is just one part of this process. As the Sunrayce 99 brochure puts it: "Combining their technical and scientific skills with experience in project management, public relations and marketing, [students] get a taste of how research and development works in the real world." That taste doesn't come cheap, either. Costs for construction and participating in the race are about $100,000, says Sindwani, paid for by corporate sponsorships, product donations and alumni contributions.
   The Penn team's headquarters is in the ground floor of the Towne building, where they have an office and use some space in the mechanical-engineering department's wind- tunnel facilities. Once construction is complete, the car -- named Lightning -- will be tested and then run in qualifying races at the GM proving grounds in Milford, Mich. on May 6-9 and in West Virginia June 15-19, before the main event kicks off in Washington on the 20th.
   The route for Sunrayce 99 covers about 1,300 miles, passing through five states. Teams stop for mid-day breaks and overnight in designated towns along the way, with June 25, in Atlanta, designated a "recharge" day. The winner is the team with the lowest cumulative time over the nine days of racing. (See this issue's "Calendar" on page 57 for information on planned alumni activities supporting the team along the route.)
   Penn's solar car program got its start as a senior design project in 1990. Solsation, the first car constructed, was followed by Liberty Belle in 1995 and, two years later, Independence, which finished 15th in Sunrayce 97.
   Lightning is approximately 5.3 meters long and 2 meters wide, says Sindwani. The car's body and chassis are constructed of very strong, lightweight composite materials, such as kevlar (used in bullet proof vests), carbon fiber and nomex. Aluminum and steel are used for the suspension, steering and brake systems. The three major electrical components are the solar array, batteries and motor. "The solar car is basically an electric vehicle, whose batteries are charged by the sun," Sindwani explains. "The solar array produces the voltage that we use to charge the batteries. The motor then uses the battery voltage to propel the car."
   This year's team is hoping to beat the performance of Independence. Lightning is lighter, with less aerodynamic drag and a better overall fit and finish, Sindwani says. "But we aren't done yet, so I can't make a real comparison," he adds -- modestly, superstitiously or both. The car's top speed is about 70 mph. In cloudy weather, the car should be able to travel 150 miles at 35 mph. At higher speeds, the range decreases.
   Sindwani calls the experience of working on the team "the best education I could ever receive" and "the best thing I've done at Penn." The management-and-technology major compares managing this project to "running a company," encompassing everything from finances, PR and fundraising to technical issues. "We have a product that we take from design to completion and a budget and a test at the end in the race," he says.
   The first three teams to cross the finish line at Disney World's Epcot Center in Orlando will win cash prizes, and there are also awards for technical innovation, engineering excellence, artistic talents, teamwork and good sportsmanship, according to the sponsoring organizations. "We race mostly for our own pride and school pride," Sindwani says. "It's the national championships of solar racing, though, like the NCAA basketball tournament, so it's just a lot of fun."
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Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 5/3/99