NU Solar Car to Race in Formula Sun Grand Prix

The Northwestern University Solar Car team is gearing up for three days of racing at the Formula Sun Grand Prix, which takes place May 2-7 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The team will face off against 11 other University teams to see who can make the most laps using only power harnessed from the sun.

“We’re a little nervous, but we’re excited,” said Jonathan Cook, the team’s sponsorship chair. “It’s one of the most famous racetracks in the world.”

Students will drive SC5, the fifth car in the team’s 13-year history, which has been raced three times before: it came in 13th in the 2008 American Solar Challenge, third in the 2009 Formula Sun Grand Prix, and 10th in the 2010 American Solar Challenge.

The car, which is powered by 21.5 percent efficient monocrystalline silicon solar cells and uses the latest lithium-ion battery technology, received a new electrical system this spring. Students completely replaced and rewired all of the car’s circuit boards during a few all-nighters over spring break.

“The whole system is cleaner and more organized,” Cook said.

The team has been testing the car and its new system the past two weeks, taking it out on the brick roads of Wilmette to make sure the connections stay in place when the car hits road bumps (a problem they’ve had before).

The team will head to Indianapolis on May 2, where they must first complete two days of scrutineering – qualifying trials – before the actual race starts May 5. The day of the race, teams will take the solar arrays off their cars and aim them at the rising sun. They can then plug their batteries into the array at 7 a.m. and charge until the race begins at 9 a.m. The race lasts until 6 p.m., after which teams can recharge their cars and perform maintenance. Whichever team has the most laps at the end of the third day wins the race.

For the Northwestern team, four students will take turns driving the car, while other team members will consider strategy and communicate with the drivers from the pit. Though teams are competitive, the race is friendly: teams share parts and expertise, and there are generally no accidents. (The cars travel around 40 miles per hour, and there is a system of signals when teams want to pass each other.) The biggest challenge is successfully using the solar energy, which teams attempt to do using computer models.

“We only have whatever solar energy the sun wants to give us,” Cook said.

The race is especially exciting because it’s part of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 100th anniversary celebration on May 7 and 8. (Team members Dan Cornew and Jonathan Cook will also be doing some celebrating of their own: both have birthdays on May 5.)

After the race, the car will become an outreach tool. The team regularly attends events at schools and similar venues to show off their car and teach the community about solar energy, and SC5 will retire to this circuit before going on display at the University Library in May of 2012. The team has already begun designing their next car, which will be more aerodynamic and twice as efficient.

“We want to make sure the design is as perfect as it can be,” Cook said.

The team has several faculty advisers: Kornel Ehmann, James N. and Nancy J. Farley Professor in Manufacturing and Entrepreneurship; Walter Herbst, director of the Master of Product Design and Development program at McCormick; Chi-Haur Wu, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science; and Dana Comolli, an adjunct lecturer in Northwestern's Segal Design Institute and a Northwestern alumnus.

Read race updates at the NU Solar blog.