Racing like the wind, powered by the sun

An American team hasn't won the international solar car race since GM took home the trophy in 1987. But a lighter, faster car could give the University of Michigan the edge it needs to cross the line first.

University of Michigan Solar Car Team's Quantum.
University of Michigan Solar Car Team's Quantum. University of Michigan

The University of Michigan's Solar Car Team is hoping to break the U.S.' 24-year dry spell at the 2011 World Solar Challenge this weekend. An American team hasn't won the international solar car race since GM took home the trophy in 1987. But a lighter, faster car could give UM the edge it needs to cross the line first.

The World Solar Challenge is a 1,800-mile race across the Australian Outback in an ultralightweight, single-passenger vehicle powered solely by the sun. Teams race their solar vehicle between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., setting up camp in the desert wherever their vehicle stops. This year the UM solar car team will be competing with its 11th-generation solar vehicle, Quantum.

At 320 pounds, Quantum is 200 pounds lighter and 30 percent more aerodynamic than its predecessor, Infinium , and has a top speed of 105 mph. UM received help from engineering firm Ricardo and Exa Corporation to help shave weight off the carbon fiber body and reduce its drag coefficient below 0.1. To put it in perspective, the 2011 Toyota Prius has a 0.25 coefficient of drag.

But when the sun is your only source of fuel, weather also plays a big role in determining who will win. The 37-member team includes a meteorologist who will analyze weather conditions and improve racing strategy by optimizing the vehicle's energy consumption.

When the race begins, the UM team expects to travel anywhere between 300-500 miles per day during the four-day event. UM won the 2010 American Solar Challenge, and placed third in the 2009 World Solar Challenge, which was won by Tokai University with an average speed of 62.5 mph.

 

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