On the Sunny Side of the Street

Solar racers build and drive unique ride

Shopping for a car? Why not consider this sleek, low-slung new model? The sporty one-seater, guaranteed to draw attention, is a delight to the wallet with its whopping 2,862 equivalent miles per gallon. Best of all, the fuel is free.

This is Pulsar, a solar-powered vehicle built by Purdue Solar Racing and awarded first place in the solar division of the Shell Eco-Marathon in April 2008. The team also received the highest overall miles-per-gallon run of any team. The objective of the competition is for teams to design and build a vehicle that uses the least amount of fuel to travel the farthest distance. Purdue's team, a College-wide group in which materials engineering is strongly represented, is led by materials engineering senior MacKenzie Sellers.

There are a few drawbacks to the vehicle. Drivers must recline and are enclosed under a cockpit-like hood that is neither for the claustrophobic nor the heat sensitive. And they can't be in a hurry. Pulsar, designed for track racing, tops out at 20 mph. Its sibling, the broader and more powerful S.P.O.T II (Solar Powered Overland Transportation vehicle) can hit 61 mph. Drivers must also be 5'2" or shorter and weigh under 120 pounds. Sale price, including a customized computer laptop fan to cool the driver, is $200,000.

Pulsar and S.P.O.T. II were built from scratch by a devoted group of engineering and technology students that form the team. The organization, now with about 50 members, was founded in 1991 to build and race solar cars and promote environmentally friendly technologies. To produce such expensive cars, the club relies on industry funding, much as racing teams do in the real world.

Mimi LaBerta, a senior in materials engineering, helped build the car and also drove it in the California race.

Tucked into the cockpit and seated on compressed bubble wrap, she describes the experience as at once fun, hot, and uncomfortable.

While only a few students are small enough to fit in the car, all of them work on it. Teams range from an aerodynamic group that builds the carbon-fiber body using foam molds to a mechanical one that constructs the brake system and suspension.

"Solar Racing functions as a project team would in industry," LaBerta says. "We have a budget to keep in mind when making purchases, and a design and build schedule. We perform testing on our product, and we work with different disciplines to accomplish our goals. I don't believe any other organization could have prepared me this well for a career in engineering."

Cole Skelton, a mechanical engineering junior who is vice president of the group and oversees its engineering teams, says Solar Racing was the primary reason he chose Purdue Engineering over other schools.

"I want to work my way into developing and refining electric vehicle technology or working on wind and solar research projects. I hope that I can end up working or designing something that changes a major facet of our society," he says.

While solar cars may not be on the road any time soon, Pulsar is an ambassador for alternative energy. The group takes the car to elementary, middle, and high schools.

"We tell the students this is what you can do with solar power. We open their eyes to it," says Sellers.

-Linda Thomas Terhune