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Jump start for solar car team

By Ruby Gee     4/14/11 7:00pm

Eighty thousand dollars. That's how much the new Rice Solar Car Team estimates they will spend in their efforts to build an energy-efficient solar car that can sufficiently compete in a race against solar cars from other universities, which have multi-million dollar budgets. They will compete for the first time in Spring 2012 in the Shell Eco-Marathon.

Headed by Sid Richardson college juniors Andrew Owens and Robert Wilson, the solar car team was first discussed Fall 2009, when the two mechanical engineers were studying abroad in Australia. Owens said that they initially took the idea to American Society of Mechanical Engineers because they weren't really sure where to go.

"There was a lot of help from ASME in getting this off of the ground," Owens said. "It turned into this larger-scale interdisciplinary project, and that's when we decided to separate from ASME and become our own club."

Confirmed March 28 as an official Rice organization, the solar car team consists of approximately 50 students, about half of whom are juniors and two-thirds of whom are mechanical engineers. According to Jones College freshman Amiri Boykin, one of the team's main goals is to recruit more freshmen because underclassmen are necessary for the survival of the team.

"It was pretty cool because I got to give insight and represent people that weren't really represented in the club," Boykin said. "I would love to see more freshmen on the team."

According to Owens, even though a majority of the students on the team are engineering majors, they are looking for students of other majors as well.

"If you're an English major that wants to write business plans … if you are an elec who wants to design a motor control system, you can do that," Owens said. "We're a very open club."

In addition to Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Andrew Dick, who is serving as their primary faculty advisor, the Rice Solar Car team is aided by an advisory board of four Rice faculty members and a professional engineer.

"Although I worked on a smaller scale design project when I was a student, I have not had any direct experience with a Solar Car team in the past," Dick said. "However, I feel that the team has made significant progress in the last three months."

According to Brown College junior Kensey King, who is the team's historian and publicity chair, a predecessor to the current solar car team, headed by Ben Harper (Jones '04), was unsuccessful partially due to low active student membership.

"I actually talked to [Harper] when we first started out this semester about his plans," King said. "His first recommendation was to try to make this project a class, [which] we already did."

The solar car project is connected to Mech 404, a design-centered project taught by Dick. King said that benefits to this set-up include technical elective credit satisfaction for mechanical engineering students and constant motivation for students since their grades are tied to the project.

According to Wilson, the team will begin the construction phase of their project next year with the anticipation that they will compete in the April 2012 Shell Eco-Marathon and eventually the world competition in Australia by 2014.

"There, we'll be competing with hydrogen-powered cars, high-efficiency vehicles and other solar cars in an efficiency race. We're competing with other cars with budgets in the millions and [that] have been established for two decades," Wilson said. "Once that's completed, we plan to repeat the cycle every two years."

A big challenge the Solar Car team has faced is the cost of their project. With the project initially estimated to cost around $100,000, the team has been seeking funding from corporate sources with Rice's Office of Resource Development as well as doing grassroots fundraising through bake sales.

"People aren't just going to give you any money, so we had to generate something that proves to them we're worth giving money to, but in order to generate that sometimes you need some money," Owens said.

The team is currently accepting donations via PayPal on their website, solarcar.rice.edu. To stay updated with the latest endeavors of the Solar Car Team, visit their Facebook page or ricesolarcar.tumblr.com.

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