On the Sunny Side of the Street

Solar team builds and drives unique ride

The next time you're in the market for a new car, consider this sporty one-seater that's guaranteed to draw attention. And don't worry if you forget your wallet when you take a spin. The fuel is free; and on clear days, its supply is unlimited.

This is Pulsar, a solar-powered vehicle built by the Purdue Solar Racing team that took first place in the solar division of the Shell Eco-Marathon in California last April. Teams competed to design and build the most fuel-efficient vehicle. Purdue's Pulsar traveled the farthest and got the highest miles-per-gallon.

Galen King, professor of mechanical engineering and the team's advisor, says the car's fuel efficiency was measured as being equivalent to traveling 2,862 on one gallon of gas.

"What Shell does in the Eco-Marathon is take the amount of energy that's received from the sun and convert that into an equivalent amount of 87-octane gasoline," King explains. "They then calculate the mileage that the car gets from that equivalent amount of energy to measure the efficiency of the car."

Getting 2,862 miles "per gallon" is phenomenal, of course, but the $200,000 Pulsar has its drawbacks.

Drivers must be no bigger than 5'2" and 120 pounds, and they must recline under a cockpit-like hood where it gets hot. And they can't be in a hurry. Pulsar tops out at 20 mph. Its older sibling is the broader and more powerful S.P.O.T II (Solar Powered Overland Transportation vehicle), which can hit 61 mph.

Pulsar and S.P.O.T. II were built by the team's devoted engineering and technology students using industry funding. Cole Skelton, a mechanical engineering junior from Bloomington, Ind., and the group's vice president, oversees its engineering teams. He says his involvement has helped him learn how to work effectively in teams, plus the value of never being satisfied and considering all ideas.

"In most cases it's not good enough if it works—all of the team members have a tendency to want to take it one step further, make it lighter, stronger, more reliable," he says. "If you think an idea is too costly or too complicated, put it out there anyway because maybe someone else will take that idea and run with it, and we'll end up with an idea that will be both feasible in terms of cost, and it will make the car that much more competitive."

-Linda Thomas Terhune and Amy Raley