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NC State University Team Sets Solar Speed Record With Normal Car

A recent article at Technician Online tells us about an interesting and successful solar car project at North Carolina State University, built by the SolarPack solar racing team. Not only did it set a record, but it’s built on a normal car’s body (something most university teams would never even consider).

This shows us how far along the technology has come and improved, leading to increasingly normal cars in both competition and soon, production.

In July, SolarPack took part in the Formula Sun Grand Prix (an event we wrote about), where it set a new record with a time of three minutes and one second. The car completed 75 laps overall. But, the vehicle’s speed isn’t the only thing that makes it unique among university team solar cars.

“The heavier a car is, the more energy it needs to move,” SolarPack Team’s electrical lead Harrison Strag said. “When you’re in a race that’s based more on distance than it is on speed, to go the farthest distance you need to have the lightest car. That’s why you see the lightest cars are winning these solar races.”

SolarPack’s car is a converted 2001 Volkswagen Golf GTI that weighs more than 2,800 pounds and is by far the most massive vehicle in the Formula Sun Grand Prix. This proved to be a big impediment to the vehicle’s performance at the event, which was dominated by hand-built cars made to be as lightweight and aerodynamically sleek as possible. But, most teams’ cars were also very impractical for any kind of daily use, an issue that SolarPack’s car didn’t share.

SolarPack’s designers purchased the original Volkswagen Golf body during the height of the COVID-19 epidemic for just $1,000. Ben Nichols, SolarPack’s technical director and a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering, said the team wanted to demonstrate that solar energy could be practically applied to current vehicle models while also conserving money at that difficult time.

“The few sponsors we had that would have been able to [fund SolarPack] had to focus on their companies and make sure that they would survive through the pandemic,” Nichols told Technician Online. “Buying the Golf cut about $30,000 dollars in car body fabrication costs.”

COVID put a bunch of other obstacles in the team’s path. They didn’t have access to the university property at all, so work had to begin in a team member’s driveway, which was less than ideal. Plus, they had to limit the number of people working on the car to five at a time, to comply with state COVID rules covering gatherings. On top of that, the truck pulling their car to the competition in Kansas broke down, one of the team members’ flight got canceled, and this all led to them entering the competition with an untested battery pack.

The team later discovered that two of the cells in the battery pack had come loose and the team stayed up the entire night so they could be repaired. Strag remarked that he believes this was SolarPack’s most challenging obstacle during the competition.

Despite these challenges, and a frightening incident you can read about at Technician Online (seriously, check their article out), the team still managed to make a successful run and break an important record.

Featured image: A screenshot from SolarPack’s website, showing their vehicle.

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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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