University student-designed solar cars show a path to the future

Finding myself fretting about the future of mockingbirds in a changing climate, I ventured over to the Circuit of the Americas to see what the American Solar Challenge was all about.

University students, these from Michigan State, use competition to learn more about solar.

University students, these from Michigan State, use competition to learn more about solar.

The weather had thrown a curveball, or to race aficionados, a chicane.  It was overcast and about 20 degrees cooler than your average July day in Texas.  No sun at a solar race makes for  a very slow pace.  But the crowd at the giant F1 track was coping gamely with long gaps between competitors. Student observers suspended high above the track were doing chin-ups in their  cages, on the lookout for approaching cars.  Enthusiasm remained high.

I wandered over to an open garage (pit?) to talk with the Michigan State team, which was engaged in some show-and-tell. Although they’d been disqualified, you’d never know it. “Don’t touch the arrays,” they patiently reminded the children who wanted to figure it all out by feel.

“It’s all about learning,” said Sean, a soon-to-be junior.  “Winning is icing on the cake, but it’s what you learn. We can’t wait til next year.”

I was curious how the team worked together.  Sean said they just figured out how to collaborate, but needed to do more of it.  “We need more ideas.”  A teammate chimed in, “Yeah, if you don’t have ideas, you’re frozen in place.”

Next year they plan to use a lighter material for the frame (it’s steel) and four- instead of a three-wheel design.  I don’t see these young people frozen in place. The team is losing three seniors to PhD. programs – Stanford and Michigan State.

We’re banking on these young people and those lucky enough to be like them.  We need the keys to trapping and commercializing photovoltaic energy; fortunately, the world seems to be kneeling at their feet.  Flash notice: The Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge will be held on an F1 track in January 2015, with financial support and partnerships available on a first-come, first-serve basis for 20-25 qualified university teams.

In the meantime, I’m channeling their attitude – about learning, failing and engaging.  I hope that’s the future.

 

 

 

 

 

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