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Solar Car team takes second in international competition

By Hallie Jordan     4/4/12 7:00pm

Rice's solar car team, started in spring 2011, won second place last weekend in its first entrance in the Shell Eco-marathon Americas competition.

The competition took place in Discovery Green downtown and judged entered cars based on their efficiency, rather than their speed. Cars were categorized according to fuel type. Rice's car placed second out of seven solar car entries. There were also categories for gas, diesel and battery-powered cars. There were 110 cars entered in total. Many were from Houston, but there were applicants from as far away as Brazil and Alaska, Rice Solar Car team Co-President and Duncan College sophomore Allison Garza said.

During the competition, the cars had to drive 10 laps, a total of six miles, in less than 24 minutes and 15 seconds, Garza said. After converting from kilojoules, the Rice team's car used 0.0825 kilowatt hours, equivalent to a car getting 3,000 miles per gallon, going 17.5 miles per hour. For comparison a 60 watt lightbulb uses 0.06 kWh of energy in one hour.

The Shell Eco-marathon is a competition that began in 1936 in a research laboratory as a game to see which scientists could make the most fuel-efficient vehicle. Since then, it has become a major international competition for students. Shell also holds a competition in Europe and is planning to start one in Asia.

The idea to build a solar car at Rice came from students who approached assistant professor of mechanical engineering Andrew Dick, asking for him to lead a class on how to build the car. The class was listed as Mech 404 in Spring 2011 and with about 35 students, Dick started the team off by helping them begin their designs.

After working in the class, the club spent this semester actually building the car, Garza said. One challenge the team faced was that their design called for $80,000 to make the car, which the team had to fundraise themselves.

The Rice car was the heaviest in the solar category, weighing 200 pounds.

"No design team built anything this large and in this little time," Garza said.

Though the team built the car relatively quickly, it encountered many challenges during the process, including a broken steering system and a broken roof.

Unlike the other teams' cars, the Rice car was almost completely handmade. Other schools designed car bodies, for instance, and had companies build the frames. However, the Rice team built its car from scratch, which made it look less streamlined, Wang said. However, the team members are proud that it is completely their effort, he said.

Though the team initially only wanted to enter the competition to put Rice's name out there, as it completed the car and progressed in the competition, the team got progressively more invested in its project's success.

"Our goals got more ambitious as we went along; things just got better and better," Duncan senior Kerry Wang said.

In the future, the team hopes to take a solar car to the American Solar Challenge which is 1,500 miles long and takes place over three to four days.

"All big schools that have cars work toward that goal," Garza said.

The team, which worked almost nonstop with about seven members to finish the car in the few weeks prior to the competition, hopes to influence a culture on campus of using free time to work on projects, Wang said.

"We lack a foundation of a culture that is willing to spend time doing amazing things, and that's why we haven't seen Rice at major design competitions -but we hope to inspire that to change," Wang said.

Though no longer their professor, Dick said he is happy about the team's effort.

"I am very proud of them for placing at an international competition," Dick said.

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