Solar Rollers RC Car Race was a high-speed success
Nineteen students from the Roaring Fork Valley set their four hand-built solar remote control cars down at the starting line for the first ever race of this type in the U.S.
The students worked hard through the winter to design and build these sophisticated, lightweight cars and to solder together custom solar panels to generate power from atop each car. The demo race at a National Renewable Energy Laboratory event in Denver would indicate the feasibility of this type of racing as an ongoing high-school program on a wider scale.
The green flag waved at 11:30 a.m. to start the one-hour race, which is a long enough period to test the overall energy efficiency of each car and its renewable energy generation system. From the very start one thing was evident: These cars were fast. The circuit was about 50 meters in length and within a minute or so all four cars were turning laps of less than 9 seconds. The fastest lap of the day was 8 seconds flat.
While the teams had each done testing on smooth tennis courts and parking lots, it soon became apparent that the actual race would not be so gentle on the cars. Impacts between cars were simply unavoidable as they negotiated tight turns at 20 miles per hour and cars could be seen bumping over lane dividers, banging into one another and even spinning like Frisbees at times. The foam bumpers students installed worked well but could not protect the mechanical systems underneath.
Soon, problems developed with every one of the cars. Pinion gears spun off, suspension components broke and critical bolts vibrated loose. Each team was forced to run their car to the pits for repairs at some point during the race. The pits were filled with activity as teams diagnosed problems and passed tools and parts back and forth. At one point, there was only one car left on the track — but most repairs were minor and quickly resolved.
In the end, durability and the ability to remain on the track turning consistent laps proved vital to winning the race. Aspen High School, which had the heaviest car at 1.9 kg, was the only team to opt for rear suspension in their design. Their car bounced its way to victory, completing 245 laps in one hour. Second place went to Yampah Mountain High School followed by Colorado Rocky Mountain School in third.
As fast as the cars were, they could have been faster. Cloud cover limited the power of the sunlight available to about 60 percent of what would be available on a clear sunny day. Some cars slowed toward the end of the race as their solar systems struggled to maintain full voltage in the batteries. On a clear day, the cars will generate 25-30 watts continuously and go faster throughout the race.
The Solar Rollers will race again on Aug. 11 at the Aspen Science Festival Street Fair at Paepcke Park in Aspen.
Solar Rollers is a new program for high schools from Solar In the Schools, the K-12 outreach program of the nonprofit Solar Energy International. More information is available at http://www.solarenergy.org.
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