From the ashes: the Phoenix, safer solar cars are born
Published: Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 02:10
Just over a year and a half ago, the Oregon State University Solar Vehicle Team’s car, the Odyssey, was engulfed in flames as its bad batteries overheated and exploded inside it. Since then, the team has worked together to build a new solar vehicle, rightfully named the Phoenix, which has emerged superior to the ashes of the Odyssey.
“We modeled the Phoenix’s body style similar to the Odyssey while making several enormous improvements, such as battery and solar panel type,” said Kathy Han, an OSU Ph.D. student in chemical engineering, and a co-captain of the team with her husband, Hai-Yue Han. “This allowed us to finish it in an incredibly short amount of time. Most cars take two years to complete using pre-built components. The Phoenix took eight months with us building everything ourselves.”
Upon completing the Phoenix in June, the team was ready to race it in the American Solar Car Challenge in July, a 1,650-mile race for solar cars built by university teams throughout the U.S., passing through all eight states bordering the Great Lakes — New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Fourteen members of the team drove the entire way from Oregon to Monticello, N.Y.
“We couch-surfed the entire way there and it was amazing,” said Han. “Everybody we met was incredibly interested in the team and really helpful and willing to take us in. The only time [couch surfing] didn’t work out was in Monticello during registration, and even then we didn’t even have to go to a hotel, we cheaply rented a vacation home for the night.”
At the race registration day, the solar vehicles underwent “scrutineering,” the process of the race authorities ensuring the car is safe and road worthy before it can be officially qualified for the race. The Phoenix, which passed scutineering first out of all the other cars, was then given a chance to prove itself on a racetrack in order to qualify for the main race. After doing so, it was ready to begin an eight-day journey to the finish line in St. Paul, Minn.
The first day of the race went smoothly, with no real complications, which was a nice surprise for the team.
“Solar cars tend to break often,” explained Han. “Everybody on the team was prepared for a potential breakdown and was trained and knew what to do if one occurred, but fortunately we didn’t have to test those skills that day.”
The second day of the race, however, didn’t go as well. A massive thunderstorm blocked out the sun, making it impossible for the solely solar-powered car to function once the batteries died. Even for normal, gas-powered vehicles it was nearly impossible to drive, due to how bad the visibility was in the rain and hail of the storm. Fortunately, though, they made great time the next day, traveling at an average of about 45 mph, and on the fourth day not only was travel smooth, but a spectating family gave them a kitten, who proved to be a great travel cat through the rest of the race.
It wasn’t until the seventh day that the Phoenix broke down, and that was due to human error. The result, however, was having to replace the protection and safety system in the vehicle before being able to continue the race, which made for a long day. On the eighth and final day, the Phoenix crossed the finish line in Saint Paul, Minn., coming in sixth out of the 16 cars that had initially registered, and OSU was given the Spirit of the Race Award for enthusiasm and willingness to help out other teams.
“It was a great learning experience,” said team member Andrew Shelton. “It was a great way to gain some strong, long-lasting friendships.”
After the race, the team took the rest of the summer off either to relax or to work various summer jobs. Now as the school season begins again, they’re back in full force, working on another car to surpass what even the Phoenix was able to accomplish.
“I think the team is going to get even more successful in the future,” said team member Marco Lujan. “We’ve had great leaders and they’ve passed on their knowledge to us, and it will be cool to see where that goes from here.”
Ryan Dawes, news reporter