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Help Make SEI's Solar Rollers for High School Students a Reality

Posted by: chris
April 19, 2013

Afer 11 years of running the Solar In the Schools K-12 outreach program, we know that it takes something extraordinary to hold the attention of today’s teens, who long ago mastered cell phones but have yet to get their hands on a driver’s license. So how do we reach adolescents with vital energy efficiency lessons and hands-on renewable energy learning? Solar In the Schools may have found the answer with solar-powered radio-controlled cars - Solar Rollers.



These electromechanical contraptions are fun to build and a blast to drive, but there are serious energy lessons involved all along the way. In order to win races the car needs to harvest sunlight, convert it to electrical energy, efficiently store that energy, and then finally convert the stored energy into kinetic energy over the course of a long race. So while speed is a big part of the picture, it is overall energy efficiency that wins in the end.

This is the first year of the Solar Roller program and it is an experiment that is going very well so far. Solar In the Schools is currently working to create several cars here in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. Solar Energy International is building a demo car with the help of middle-school students, and three high school teams are building their own cars: Colorado Rocky Mountain School, Yampah Mountain High School, and Aspen High School. When all four cars are finished, the race is on – we’re heading to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Junior Solar Sprint event in Denver to hold the first official Solar Roller demo race on May 18. The program is generating lots of positive interest and we expect to expand to a regional or possibly national race series next year.

The guidelines are very open – cars are limited to 2200 cm2 of PV area with a total width of up to 50 cm and a total length of up to 80 cm. They’re about the size of a flattened suitcase with roughly 40-watt hand-built arrays on top. Cars must start with “empty” batteries 30 minutes before the race, when they are placed at the starting line to begin charging in the sun. The race then follows a winding tennis-court-sized racecourse for an hour. There are a few technicalities (no prerace icing of your array, for example) but that’s about it. If you can make capacitors work better than batteries, go for it.

The Solar Rollers race series borrows heavily from the SolaRCars program which has been running for more than a decade at technical colleges in France. These are serious exercises in engineering, not toys – or at least not entirely. The most successful French SolaRCars are superlight creations built with carbon fiber, rigid foam, advanced brushless motors and many customized parts. Extremely delicate solar arrays must be soldered together by hand, an exercise in patience, restraint and deliberation for any high school student.

Solar Rollers are intended to fill a gap for high-schoolers interested in electronics, mechanical systems, and renewable energy. The Junior Solar Sprint event, which races simple solar dragsters along guide strings, is popular with middle school students around the country. At the university level, teams of engineering students compete in the American Solar Challenge which leads into the World Solar Challenge race across Australia. A middle school team might spend $50 on a Junior Solar Sprint car, while a World Solar Challenge team’s budget would be measured in the hundreds of thousands. Each Solar Roller will cost the team about $1000 in parts and tools – a challenging but achievable fundraising level for a high school. Speaking of fundraising, Solar In the Schools is writing grants and launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for this program.

Current work revolves around getting the first four cars finished, which is no mean feat but we’re getting there. The next goal is to create an online learning community, part of Solar Energy International’s cutting-edge Online Campus, for anyone interested in being part of the program: from students to teachers to community volunteers with expertise. In this way any motivated students in any part of the country should be able to field a team. We will post designated track layouts the size of a tennis court, allowing any team to run against the clock on any sunny day without traveling constantly. In this way teams will be able to compete from afar – although we also plan to organize regional competitions.

So if you are reading this – especially until the end – you are probably qualified to become a solar advisor to a local team. Our hope is that each team will find a local solar advisor as well as a local radio-control advisor to provide technical assistance. So reach out to those who need to understand energy the most, and get a local high school team started for the 2013-2014 school year!

Here are a couple of preview pictures of the Solar In the Schools demo model for Solar Rollers The car measures 50 x 80 centimeters and weighs just 1.5 kgs complete. It goes over 200 miles per hour (to scale) as measured by Carbondale Colorado's police radar.      




Noah Davis  Facebook Solar In the Schools  Solar In the Schools Twitter
   Noah Davis
   Solar In the Schools Manager
   (970) 963-8855 ext 114

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