Students build solar-powered race car

June 18, 2010 (EVANSTON, Ill.)

If you saw the car on the street, you would be sure to take a second look.

"The top shell is flat to maximize the amount of solar power we get," said Dan Cornew, junior, mechanical engineering major.

The three-wheeled, one-seater is covered with nearly 500 photovoltaic panels. They soak in the sun's rays to power lithium-ion batteries, which run the motor. The batteries are the same kind you'd find in your laptop computer.

"We have 472 individual cells and your normal laptop has around eight or nine," said Cornew.

Northwestern's car charges while it runs and can go for about four hours or 120 miles on a fully charged battery.

"Efficiency is possible with solar cells and it's an up-and-coming technology that could be completely feasible within the next decade," said Jessica Sudo, freshman, mechanical engineering major.

Walter Herbst has been advising students on similar projects for the past eight years. He says the design and technology has come a long way in a short time.

"The first year was this sort of flim-flam, I should be kind, but this kind of flim-flam car that just didn't do very well. It was sort of easier to build, but we suffered for it," said Herbst.

The students have been working on the car for the past two years. It's all in preparation for the American Solar Challenge, an international race with a course spanning nearly 1,200 miles -- from Tulsa, Oklahoma to west suburban Naperville. Students say the goal is less about winning and more about learning.

"We're the beginning of the next people who are going to be troubleshooting the electric cars of the future. We're getting training in figuring out how to make things efficient, how to troubleshoot, how to wire things, how to hook things up, how to make things work efficiently, which is ultimately where the technology is really going to be going," said Phil Dziedzic, senior, Northwestern University.

The Museum of Science and Industry will host a celebration for race participants Next Sunday, June 27. That's the day after the race ends. The event is open the public so you can get up-close look at the vehicle.

To check up on how the team is doing in the big race, visit

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