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Students Build Solar EV Charging Station

Students at University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) recently gained experience with solar technology and EVs by building a charging station for one of the school’s vehicles which is used to deliver food and reduce food waste. The little car even has a name: Gemma, but we’ll get to why that is in a minute.

“To charge Gemma off-grid, we implemented a 300-watt solar panel. The solar panel charges a battery that is used to charge Gemma at night,” Joe Downie, a team member, told UIC Today. “The charge station implements manual solar tracking, and it has 12 settings so that it is angled to be most efficient for each month.”

In other words, the station wasn’t just some quick job like I’d do using parts from Amazon and slapping some panels up. The student team members are all engineering students, three seeking a degree in Mechanical Engineering and one in biomedical engineering. They made sure that the 300 watt solar panel gives the full 300 watts as much as possible. They went beyond just tracking the sun every day, but also set up tilt settings to wring every last electron out of the sun every single month.

300 watts might not sound like much, and even with the all-out design for the solar charging station, you’re probably only going to get 2-2.4 kilowatt hours per day. But the school’s little EV doesn’t need that much power. It’s a Polaris GEM, like the GEM neighborhood electric vehicles, but with commercial upfitting. This makes it more of an electric box truck, even if the capacity isn’t super high.

It isn’t a Tesla, but Gemma still does important work around the UIC campus and beyond. GEMs are street legal, and can go normal street speeds (as long as it’s not a “stroad,” as its max speed is 25 MPH). UIC’s Food Recovery Network (FRN) collects up leftover food from campus dining halls and other locations, loads the food up in Gemma, and then delivers it to homeless shelters and food kitchens around Chicago. This not only feeds the hungry, but also lowers the city’s carbon emissions from cooking.

“It has been such a rewarding experience,” FRN Volunteer Chris Armstrong told UIC Today. “Not only has it given me a reason to get out of my house and interact with others face-to-face, but being able to see the amount of food that we have kept out of landfills and to see the homeless people that are directly benefiting from these actions has been very humbling.”

In the fall of 2020 alone, the Food Recovery Network (with Gemma’s help) delivered 7,589 pounds of food to the homeless, and now that volume of food delivery is going to be done with zero emissions, even from generating the electricity to charge it.

While competent engineering students had no problem coming up with a good design and selecting components, they did face a challenge that threw everyone for a loop: the pandemic. The charging station was originally going to be mounted on a trailer, but the trailer never came after supply chain issues shut their suppliers down.

The team says it may yet install it on a trailer for mobile charging, but that it works great today as a stationary charging station for Gemma.

Featured image provided by University of Illinois Chicago, Office of Strategic Marketing and Communications.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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