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Borealis III leads the way as the 2005 North American Solar Challenge passes through Lake Benton, Minnesota, in July.
Catching a tailwind
Solar car students benefit from alumni support
From M, fall 2005
It took more than sunlight to power Borealis III to a runner-up finish in the North American Solar Challenge. Although the University's solar vehicle completed the 2,500-mile race fueled only by sunlight, the car's real firepower comes from a potent mix of student ingenuity and alumni support.
Alumni play a key role in the project's success, says Patrick Starr, a mechanical engineering professor who has been the group's advisor for 14 years. The team's 60 sponsors--who provide nearly all of the project's funding--include many alumni and alumni-founded companies. "We couldn't race the car--let alone build it--without them," says Starr.
Private support helps the team in other ways, too. Since team members don't earn money or course credit for their work, scholarships funded by private gifts make it possible for them to devote time to the solar car project instead of a part-time job.
"Those scholarships didn't just help me pay for my education; they gave me this amazing opportunity," says Majkrzak."I couldn't have been a part of this without that support," says mechanical engineering senior Allen Majkrzak, who earned three different scholarships during his time on the team. "Those scholarships didn't just help me pay for my education; they gave me this amazing opportunity."
He's not alone, says Starr. Most team members receive at least one scholarship; many, like Majkrzak, earn multiple awards. For some, a scholarship also made the difference between attending the University or choosing another school. "We certainly benefit from the generosity of alumni on many levels," adds Starr.
This year, nearly 50 University undergraduates participated in the solar car project, logging more than 43,000 hours working on the design, fabrication, and testing of Borealis III.
Team members were subdivided into electrical, mechanical, solar array, and aerodynamics teams that used the latest in interdisciplinary technologies. "Where else can you get hands-on experience with that kind of technology?" asks Majkrzak, who compares his experience on the team with the prestige of landing a NASA internship. "It's an opportunity to be part of something bigger than yourself--the cr?me de la cr?me of student projects."
The team draws talented students to the University from across the country, says Starr. It also gives students an opportunity to flourish and thrive. "This project doesn't just attract the University's best and brightest, it builds them."
Team members say the project involves more than technical skills. Students face the multiple demands of project development and management, fund-raising, planning, and budgeting-the same challenges they'll encounter throughout their careers.
The team's ingenuity also kept the cost of Minnesota's car at a fraction of one of its competitor's. "Our budget this year was about $150,000; Michigan spent ten times that amount," Starr says. "I'd say we get a lot more bang for our buck, wouldn't you?"
The road to success
- Few Minnesota teams can boast a record as impressive as the University's Solar Vehicle Project. In 15 races over the past 15 years, the team has placed first or second 10 times-including a dramatic second-place finish in the North American Solar Challenge this summer.
- The race--the longest of its kind in the world--was decided by the slimmest of margins. After 11 days and more than 2,500 miles on the road from Austin, Texas, to Calgary, Alberta, Minnesota's car, Borealis III, finished just 11 minutes behind first-place Michigan.
- Twenty teams from universities across North America completed the race, traversing the continent in sleek aerodynamic vehicles fueled entirely by solar energy. At 370 pounds, Borealis III is the Minnesota team's lightest and most powerful solar vehicle ever.
- The race was tight from start to finish. Although Minnesota and Michigan led the field for most of the race, teams from MIT and the University of Missouri-Rolla also took the lead at times. The race route took the teams through seven states--including Minnesota--before crossing into Canada.