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Solar 'Hare' Debuts in Race Down Under

It's registered for the roads of Massachusetts, but a team of designers and builders hopes their car will cruise to victory in the desert of Australia in a solar-car race that starts next week.

The vehicle is one of about 50 entrants in the Diado-Hoxan World Solar Challenge, an 1,860-mile dash through the outback from Darwin to Adelaide that is held every three years. Team New England's (TNE) entry is a collaboration between the solar car clubs of MIT and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

Among all the entrants, TNE is adopting a unique "tortoise and hare" strategy, explained Kathleen Allen, a technical instructor and part-time physics student who is overseeing logistics for the event. Whereas the other cars have solar panels permanently affixed to their exteriors to continually absorb sunlight as they run, the MIT/UMass car keeps its solar array packed away in the "trunk." The driver will have to stop for about two hours each day to unpack the array and recharge its batteries from the sunlight, but the designers believe they will still be competitive because the average speed will be faster.

"You have a heavy drag coefficient with something that large," Ms. Allen said, referring to the other vehicles' fixed panels. They can average only about 45 miles per hour and run at a maximum of 60, whereas TNE should be able to cruise at 60 miles per hour and attain a top speed of 100 miles per hour, she said.

TNE's car, which is built of lightweight carbon fiber, weighs 320 pounds without the driver and is 11.5 feet long. Like the other entries, it will use silver-zinc batteries, which are slightly larger than lantern batteries and offer a high ratio of watt-hours to weight. The batteries, which are made to the same specifications as those used in submarine torpedoes, aren't in widespread use because they can't be recharged repeatedly.

Stanford University is lending TNE the solar array, which was once used on a satellite. "It's like glass butterfly wings-very thin, very light and unbelievably fragile," Allen said. Stanford is sending an entry of its own to Australia, but cooperation among rivals is not uncommon. "We're all trying to make the same thing happen in the long term. There's lots of borrowing and generalized schmoozing going on," she said.

One of the car's drivers as well as a driving force behind the project is Olaf Bleck, a 1989 MIT graduate now with Solectria in Wilmington, MA, one of the team's sponsors. He and other alumni along with Allen and some students didn't begin work in earnest until early July.

"We wanted to make a statement that you don't have to spend three years and millions of dollars to win this race or do well in it," Mr. Bleck said. Although it is going up against big-name (and big-money) entrants such as Ford and Honda, Team New England has a total budget of just $50,000, not including loaned and donated materials (the collapsible solar array is worth $1 million, Mr. Bleck said). About $30,000 has been raised thus far from a number of sponsors, chief among them Arthur D. Little, Ciba, Polaroid, Alcan, Harris Semiconductor and Solectria. The team is still seeking additional sponsors, he added.

This is the fourth solar car model that Mr. Bleck has worked on since getting involved with the club as an undergraduate with James Worden, another MIT graduate who went on to help found Solectria, which designs electric vehicle conversions. Andrew Heafitz '91 helped with the design and will be another driver (the four-person group will be rounded out by two from UMass). Also involved are alumni Mike Sortor '84 and Thomas Ippolito (MS '90); David Leip, a graduate student in computer science and electrical engineering; and sophomores Karl Critz and Ivano Gregoratto.

The main body of the car was shipped to Australia last week, but the smaller components will go in the luggage of the group from MIT leaves Friday. A replica of the car (minus the more sophisticated aerodynamic features) will be used for testing and fine-tuning right up until the participants depart for the race, which begins November 3 and is expected to last four or five days. The low-slung vehicle, which is registered as an experimental motorcycle with the Registry of Motor Vehicles because it has three wheels, drove at 55 miles an hour one night this week on a local highway (it was closely followed by a protective "chase car," Ms. Allen said).

It's quite likely that some of the technology being used in this and other solar cars running the race will someday find their way into practical vehicles, Ms. Allen said, noting that innovations such as fuel injection and the MacPherson strut were first used in custom-built racing cars.

Whether Team New England walks (or rolls) away with first place will depend on unpredictable variables such as the weather, but the design and strategy look "reasonable" on paper, Ms. Allen said. "All the hare needs to do is not fall asleep," she joked.

A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 11).

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