From Dallas to Calgary: The Schulich I comes home
July 30, 2008
Its carbon fibre surface is covered in 2,208 solar cells, together delivering about 1200W to an electric engine that delivers less than one horsepower. Still, its solar energy was enough to carry the 220 kg Schulich I, the third incarnation of the University of Calgary’s Solar Team, 2,400 miles (about 4,000-kilometres) from Dallas, TX in the 2008 North American Solar Challenge, crossing the finish line in the team’s hometown on July 22.
Finishing sixth in a field of 15 solar car competitors, the Schulich I solar car is the successor to the Soleon and its X1 prototype, built in 2005 for the U of C’s first entries in Australia’s World Solar Challenge and North American Solar Challenge races. The car itself is named after Seymour Schulich, whose $25 million donation to the university led to the engineering department’s renaming in his honour. Now, the department’s students, along with students from programs as varied as science and commerce, are helping to develop a $750,000 project designed to demonstrate the viability of solar power.
Like the Calgary team’s own history in the two solar races (some American teams have been competing since 1990), youth is an essential part of the UC Solar Team. Run almost entirely by undergraduates, mostly in their second or first years, the team appeals to students like Darshni Pillay, operations manager and co-chair, who are looking for the kind of practical experience that can only come from sun-baked blacktop.
“You don’t learn about this stuff in your lectures and labs,” says the second-year engineering student, who started as the team’s logistics manager during the 2007 World Solar Challenge. “You come in on your first day and nobody knows anything but what you’ve learned in your classroom.”
Early tasks for solar team volunteers include engineering projects focusing on using solar energy, like improvised iPod charging stations (“you have to be very brave to use them but we did make them,” says Pillay), before moving on to the technical challenges of moving a solar car at 70 km/h across continents.
Selecting team members to drive the Schulich I in this year’s North American Solar Challenge began in February. After being selected, candidates entered a training regime with former solar car drivers that included hot yoga, designed to prepare them for the intense heat of the race, and weight training three times a week.
Having trained their bodies, drivers moved on to driving an extremely unconventional vehicle — not only is the solar car powered by an alternative energy technology, it has only three wheels and is subject to extreme heat. Ironically, the same sun that fuels the Schulich is also capable of baking its driver, strapped into a five-point harness in a cockpit that could only accommodate a driver less than 5’8”.
“The temperature [in the car] is about five degrees higher than it is outside,” explains Pillay. “So in Dallas it’s 35 and you’re sitting in there for six hours. [Hot yoga] taught them to not let the heat get to them, to focus on the driving and not let the heat get to as much.”
One of the car’s two drivers, Jeff Wickenheiser, began on the car’s four-person electrical team, where he continued to work when not in the driver’s seat. Because he was under the height limit, Wickenheiser was selected, logging about 17 hours in pre-race driving and 25 during the race itself.
“It was a fun experience,” he says, “though I’m not sure if I’ll ever do it again. Maybe I’ll let someone else have the privilege.”
As for the heat in the Schulich I, he says simply: “The hotter days were quite hot, the cooler days were quite nice.”
The intensity of the race also included the “lead” and “chase” support vehicles, carrying the team’s remaining team members. Before the race, in fact, the convoy carrying the Schulich I took the route its car would eventually take, preparing its drivers and crew. But driving in a truck along the highway is entirely different from the solar car, inches from the ground and reaching speeds of up to 110 km/hr (though the car usually average between 60 and 70 km/hr). Not that that dissuaded the team’s drivers.
““The entire time I did feel completely safe. It is fairly safe in terms of it has a steel chassis,” says Wickenheim, adding: “of course, that’s not going to hold up to a semi or a van.”
But if the speed and heat didn’t bother Wickenheim, the same can’t be said of the Schulich I itself.
This year’s race began with a few technical glitches, notably the failure of the battery protection system (BPS), which monitors the voltage and temperature of the car’s batteries. Because of the difference in temperature between Calgary and the race’s start line in Dallas, where temperatures are as much as 20 degrees higher, the car experienced a few last minutes scrambles. But if the high temperatures dampened the car’s batteries it didn’t dampen either the team’s enthusiasm or, for that matter, the car’s other systems.
“Mechanically the car was perfect,” says Pillay. “It was definitely electrical that was the weakness, related to the heat and the humidity.”
Every night, the car’s tires were changed, brakes maintained and windows washed. During the day, the team sprayed the Schulich I’s solar panels with a water mist that helped prevent the delicate solar panels from overheating, which could cause them to develop fractures or otherwise deform.
With the year’s races completed, the UC Solar Team is now turning to a set of tasks that are no less important, if more likely to be done in the comfort of their workshop than in the summer sun —improving the Schulich I’s design for the car’s next incarnation.
“One of the things we have is a telemetry system in the car and that monitors the battery,” explains Pillay. “So we’ve kept all that data, we’re going to be using the same set of batteries for the next vehicle. What the charging and discharging rates are, and what’s the overall behavior of the batteries. We have a program that basically monitors us on our route and tells us how our car is performing on a given stretch of road.”
The team also uses the lessons learned while maintaining the Schulich I to teach new lessons to Calgary schools and other public forums, demonstrating the value of solar power. By showing the solar car’s success, they team is able to show that solar technology is viable and useful, especially as escalating gas prices send consumers rushing to alternative fuels.
In fact, this year’s race several new regulations designed to bring the car closer to the reality of, as Pillay says, “driving down the Deerfoot.” Drivers’ weight is regulated (with Wickenheim having to carry ballast to increase his weight) and the race required the driver’s seat to be more vertical than in previous years.
For Pillay, the project ultimately signals the viability of solar technology, eventually paving the way for cars that could actually drive alongside our current, fossil-fuel-reliant cars. And while she cautions that we’re unlikely to be driving our own Schulick X’s down Calgary roads any time soon, she adds that the technology is slowly creeping into our everyday lives.
“The technology has a long way to go, but I think you’ll see it being slowly integrated,” she says, pointing out that solar cells are already available in that most iconic of Canadian hardware stores, Canadian Tire. “There might be solar cells on your car, but maybe only for your air conditioning, or for backing up your car batteries. Or maybe you’ll plug up your iPod into a recharging station.”
She and Wickenheiser both also point out that solar technology could eventually become integrated with alternative energy technology we already consider, such as cars powered by electric motors filling up at fuel stations powered by solar panels.
As for the project’s ultimate goal of demonstrating solar power, Pillay takes special pride in an alternative energy project breaking new ground out of a province known for its production of fossil fuels. Inducted on July 1 as “official Calgary ambassadors,” the team received Calgary’s iconic white hats before taking the Schulich I on its North American tour. And for Pillay, the symbolism couldn’t be more fitting.
“I love it, I think it’s great. The irony gets me every time,” she says. “The fact that the race goes from Dallas to Calgary is even better.
“I thought it was more than appropriate.”
(Read a day-by-day travelogue of the UC Solar Team’s race on their blog.)