Race to the Future

The Newburgh Free Academy’s Solar Racing Team takes the lead in building energy-efficient automobiles

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The Solar Racing Team has built seven solar cars in their 15-year history. Next on their agenda: electric vehicles

Photograph by Thomas Moore

In previous years, NFA has used their solar cars (they’ve built seven) to compete against other high schools at both a Texas motor speedway and in cross-country contests. By winning the 2007 Dell-Winston challenge — in which about a dozen teams drove a 2,020-mile route from Texas to Newburgh — the NFA team became the Solar Car Cross-Country National Champions. “Probably the strangest part about the car is its looks,” says Eachus. “People often think that they are UFOs, or boats out of the water. Sometimes we’re out on the interstate, and a traffic jam builds. We won’t go over the speed limit. Unfortunately, sometimes the speed limit isn’t enough, and the other drivers don’t understand why traffic is moving so slowly, they’ll get upset. By the time they catch up and see what it’s all about, they’ll slow down to look and take pictures. Now they’re causing the jam!”

Aside from driving the cars in races, students have a variety of other options if they are interested in joining the club — including fund-raising, PR, accompanying the cars on field trips, and building and design. A number of NFA faculty members are available to help the teens cultivate their skills in mechanical drawing, welding, and electronics, but the students do all the work themselves: building molds, sanding, constructing bodywork, and drawing up blueprints.

The club, which meets twice a month, has about 60 members, with nearly equal numbers of boys and girls; interest continues to grow, partially due to the show. Aside from providing energetic teens with an after-school activity unlike any of those featured at other schools in the region, the club offers opportunities for students to use what they’ve learned in class. “Just the other day, I was working on wiring for the electric car, and we were going over schematics in physics class,” says current cocaptain Chris Bair, a senior at NFA. “There is definitely an overlap. We get to apply the knowledge we get in the classroom to real-life experiences.”

Providing students with hands-on learning opportunities is what motivated Eachus’ predecessor, Lee Cabe, who founded the team 15 years ago; it continues to be Eachus’ focus today. “Our goal is to give the students the ability to work with and have knowledge of composite materials, alternative energy, as well as applications of science,” says Eachus. “We are not building solar cars and electric vehicles to be commuter vehicles; it’s about educating the kids. When they leave school, they know it’s possible, that it can be done.”

Eachus and his students are optimistic about the future of these alternative energy vehicles. “Though the solar technology is available to all of us, it is not good enough to work in the mass market,” explains Eachus. “There is technology out there that would probably work, but it’s just coming to fruition now. Electric vehicles are a done deal if we can take the copyrights away from the motor/oil companies. Solar cars would follow behind that in progression.” Adds Bair: “Our team is a step in the right direction. If high school students can build an electric car and get it on the road, why can’t the automobile manufacturers make that switch?”

Illustration based on a diagram by Lehman Marks, PhD. Used with permission

The basics of solar car design

(see figure)
1. Solar energy is converted directly to electricity by the photovoltaic array
2. Electric energy is stored in batteries. Solar electricity can also go directly to the motor when the car is running
3. Modern electronic motor controllers smoothly and efficiently control power to the motor. Speed control is by a  normal accelerator pedal
4. The latest in motor technology uses rare-earth magnets and a brushless design. A 5-hp motor can weigh less than 5 kg (10 lbs.)
5. Gear changing is done electronically in the motor


Zooming onto the scene

SUNY New Paltz is quickly gaining speed with their own Solar Car Club, which is spearheaded by team advisor and engineering professor Mike Otis, and former NFA founder-consultant Lee Cabe. The team has already begun fund-raising and building the frame for its first solar-powered vehicle, the SUN(Y) HAWK. Using the mold of the NFA model, New Paltz expects to complete the car by next May — just in time to practice for the next North American Solar Car Challenge (and ruffle the feathers of the top-seeded University of Michigan team). Race over to www.newpaltz.edu/solarcar for more information.

It’s electric! Read up on some super slick electric cars here.



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