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Student Teams Rev Up for Solar Grand Prix


Thirteen student teams are preparing to race their solar cars, powered only by the Texas sun, in this year’s Formula Sun Grand Prix. The annual track race will be held over three days—June 27 to 29—where teams will be judged on the total number of laps they complete on the closed course. Held this year in Austin, Tex., the endurance race challenges competitors to finish as many laps as they can around the 3.4 mile track during the designated driving hours each day. Aside from the race itself, competitors must be able to adapt to changing weather conditions, make fast and efficient pit stops, and perform repairs as needed.

“The Formula Sun program challenges students to address areas of energy management, aerodynamics, fabrication and high-tech materials,” said Edgar Farrera, director of sustainability for Circuit of the Americas, where the event will take place. “We hope students’ involvement in this challenge inspires them to seek careers in these critical fields of study.”

This is the first year that the Formula Sun Grand Prix will take place on an official Formula 1 track, with the University of Texas at Austin Solar Vehicles Team (UTSVT) serving as the local university host for the “rayrace.” Comprised of roughly 50 members—a majority of whom are undergraduate engineering students—the team has built five solar cars since its inception in 1990. Team members have just finished their newest car, TexSun, which they’ll race in the grand prix.

For the past 10 years, the UTSVT has been chasing a win. With a $50,000 donation from Circuit of the Americas, maybe this year the team will achieve a victory. Of the 13 competing teams, UTSVT has the largest solar array—a 1,346 watt SunPower Mono-Si with a 4KW battery pack. With the TexSun, all components are designed to minimize weight, from the lithium iron phosphate battery to the reduction of wires compared to the team's previous solar vehicle models. 

“To be in a lab building something hands-on is what I came here to do,” said freshman Angus Ranson, who has worked on the solar car team for two years. Powering a vehicle using only the sun’s energy is no easy feat, the Austin solar vehicle team has realized. TexSun will only be able to utilize about 800 of the 1,200 watts of sunlight the solar vehicle absorbs. “This project is more of a way to develop efficient systems for cars,” said engineering student Raul Molina.  

Although the race takes place during the weekend, teams must show up to racetrack on Monday, June 24 so that the solar racecars can undergo a series of detailed scrutineering inspections. This ensures that the vehicles match their submitted design reports, and allows ample time for inspectors to evaluate each vehicle's battery system, structural integrity and size of the solar array. A dynamics test is also performed on each competing solar car.

Bobby Epstein, chairman of Circuit of the Americas, said that the vehicles racing in the Formula Sun Grand Prix may not be the fastest vehicles out there, but they act as “a precursor to the future.” 

“A lot of the technologies that come out of Formula One you see in passenger cars 10 to 20 years later,” Epstein said.

The event is free and open to the public. 

The original article was posted on the SolarReviews blog

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