UK's Solar Car
UK students prep for Route 66
By Bianca McCartt co-authored by Jessie Morgan

Frmae for the Solar Panel vehicle

A team of engineering students at the University of Kentucky are currently designing and building a solar car. This car will be the first to represent UK in next summer's American Solar Challenge. The first to represent UK in any solar car race, for that matter. The ASC is a race that requires one person (the driver) to travel by solar car from Chicago to Los Angeles over a period of 10 days. UK has never previously participated in a race of this kind.

It's taken almost three years for the idea of building a solar car to evolve into the actual fabrication of the vehicle. UK's College of Engineering Associate Dean, Dr. Bruce Walcott, heard about the 1999 Sunrayce and thought it would be good for UK to participate. Carolyn Thorton, one of his electrical engineering students came back from a visit to Rose-Hulman University, where solar cars have been built and raced for almost 15 years now, and convinced him that UK needed a solar car team too. "When I became Associate Dean, I realized I needed to look for projects that are multi-disciplinary, rather than focusing solely on electrical engineering. The solar car team requires students from all fields of engineering, from mechanical to civil. Once UK competes, I envision that we'll see another winning tradition started here, as we have had with many of our other engineering student organizations."

In the fall of 2001, after almost two years of research and one trip to the American Solar Challenge, several engineering students began the design process. The past year was devoted to brainstorming, designing, collecting materials, and fundraising.

The idea is to give students an opportunity to get practical experience working on a major project with a diverse group of teammates, and to give UK and the project sponsors national publicity. The race is a big event with over 30 collegiate and professional teams from University of Michigan to M.I.T., and last year the National Geographic Network and ESPN2 covered it. The project is also relevant to the current need for more efficient use of natural resources.

Form Meets Function
UK’s solar cell

A solar car is powered entirely by the energy of the sun, through photovoltaic solar cells. Solar cars are electric vehicles that use batteries charged by these cells. It takes about 800 solar cells to provide enough power for a 1,000 pound car to run at an average speed of 35 mph. The energy absorbed by the solar cells is stored in battery packs carried on the car, very similar to an everyday car battery. Since there are limitations on how much energy can be generated and stored, solar cars must be energy efficient to maximize the speed and distance the car can travel. This is accomplished by making the car as light as possible and minimizing wind resistance on the car. The methods are similar to those used in aircraft design, using an aerodynamic shape and super-light materials. Aside from the solar cells, batteries, and basic shape of the car, most of the other components are similar to those of traditional cars.

Since the first solar car, advancements in solar cells and battery technology, electric motors, and strong, light materials have improved performance. As a result, young engineers are learning how to effectively use these new technologies.

Solar car racing began in 1987 with the World Solar Challenge in Australia. The WSC races across 1,870 miles of the Australian Outback. In 1990, solar racing came to the US through General Motors' sponsored Sunrayce, a 1,500 mile event for collegiate solar car teams. In 2001, Sunrayce was replaced by the American Solar Challenge, which took Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. At the inaugural ASC, 30 teams finished the world's longest solar car race at over 2,300 miles.

UK's Team

The team currently consists of about 20 members, primarily engineering students of different disciplines. The team requires many engineering students due to all the technical aspects of designing and building a car. However, team members who are interested in working on the fundraising, management, and the logistical aspects of solar car racing are needed as well. The team meets twice weekly to discuss progress and upcoming events, and welcome new team members. The solar car project is a great way for the students to learn practical skills, while encouraging them to learn about new technologies and strategies that increase efficiency.

No team member is expected to have any expertise on a project of this nature when they join. Learning more about engineering, marketing, or solar cars in general is part of the point of this kind of project. Being on a team is on-the-job training.

Colin Goggin says, "I joined the team because it seemed like such an interesting project to be involved in. It shows talent and displays the skills involved in engineering at this college. It's a very high profile project."

Since the solar car's inception at UK, time has been spent researching, testing new theories, raising funds, and designing various components and systems of the car.

The vehicle's chassis and shell, which are much like the bones and skin of the car, are nearing production. One of the team's first purchases was the electric motor, which has recently been hooked to the recent donation of batteries from Enersys, Inc.

Consider Adoption

At this point, the team has raised about $37,000 in monetary donations and materials from various industry donors, individual sponsors of solar cells, and internally from UK. The funds have helped the team obtain the vehicle's motor, suspension, tires, and batteries.

Roughly $100,000 is necessary to build and race a car of this kind. This total includes the cost of materials, labor, and the expenses associated with racing the car.

In order to raise a fraction of this total, the team established a program called Adopt-A-Cell to allow members of the community to purchase a solar cell for the car. Supporters can adopt a cell for $20 and become included as contributors on the project website. Corporate sponsors are interested in the solar car because it's good training for students who may be their employees one day, it showcases their company on a national level, and it's one of Kentucky's most interesting current collegiate projects.


Q: Can the car run with no sun, on cloudy days, or in the rain?

A: Yes, because of stored power in the batteries. It just can't go as far or as fast. The solar cells on top are waterproof, so it won't hurt them to get a little wet.

Q: How fast does the car go?

A: Race regulations limit the car to obey all speed limits when racing, just like a regular vehicle. Many teams have been able to run their solar cars at 65-70 miles per hour while testing. However, to conserve energy and travel greater distances, 30-40 miles per hour is the average for most cars.

Q: How much power does the solar array produce?

A: This depends on greatly on the time of day, the day of the year, the geographical location, and the weather. In optimal conditions the array should be able to generate up to 1800 Watts-about the same amount of power as some hair dryers use, or enough power for thirty 60 Watt light bulbs.

Q: Can you drive at night?

A: In theory solar cars could drive in the dark using the energy stored in the battery pack, however the car doesn't have headlights so the law doesn't allow driving at night.

Q: Why does it cost so much?

A: Since they start from scratch, they must buy or get many materials donated. In general these materials are quite expensive. They include the body of car, which is made from composite materials, the solar cells, batteries, motors, the electrical system, and other parts.

Q: Aren't you starving college students?

A: As a matter of fact, the team is comprised of starving college students. That's why they solicit contributions from companies, people, friends, and families.

For more information on current progress, and joining or sponsoring the team, please see the website:

Email is

Info about the solar car races can be obtained at

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