Virginia Harris, Office for Sustainability Student Employee

Since the founding of Solar Car at UVA in 1997, the team of undergraduate students have worked diligently to create a competitive solar race car. Twenty-three years later, and after a stint of dormancy from 2002 to 2016, the team is expected to complete their first car when they return to Grounds next fall due to Covid-19. Constructing a solar car is no easy feat. I had the opportunity to learn from three of UVA’s Solar Car team members, Shravani Solipuram (‘23), Zach Khan (‘22), and Brett Mihovetz (‘23) to learn more about their organization and what they have accomplished over the past few years since its revitalization.

Solar car racing is a “competitive varsity sport in a collaborative environment” that began over two decades ago when students first began building and racing solar-powered race cars (UVA Solar Car Team). These cars can reach speeds up to 70 miles per hour and are raced on circuit tracks or cross country tracks that can be up to 2,000 miles long. While the team at UVA has not raced since 2001, they have attended nationwide races and hope that the completion of this new car will allow them to race in the future.

Shravani is a first year, pre-commerce major on the Operations Team, which manages the fundraising and logistics for each of the sub-teams: operations, mechanical, and electrical. As a member of the operations team, she has helped solicit donations and learned the fundamentals of finance, customer relationship management, and accounting through training workshops. Shravani has found that the ability to “go out and tell people about the work that [they]’re doing” and see “the team effort come out too…when they operat[e] as a cohesive unit” to be incredibly impactful. Through both the hard work of securing grants and corporate sponsorships to fund their team, and the various bonding events, such as trips to Carter’s Mountain Apple Orchard, Shravani has learned alongside and collaborated with several new friends through Solar Car.
 

People discussing around a PowerPoint presentation
Photo from https://www.solarcaratuva.org

One of the key parts of the Solar Car team is its focus on environmental sustainability. Solar Team lead, Zach Khan (‘22) highlights that “being on the Solar Collection and Distribution team has pushed [him] to learn more about the science and engineering behind solar power and its roles in energy sustainability. From taking environmental science classes to working with UVA's solar simulator, [he’s] gained a higher level appreciation for the work we're doing.” Zach notes that the state of Virginia isn't an ideal place for maximum solar efficiency due to its latitude and humidity. To work around this, Zach and his team use a solar simulator which “helps [them] collect data on how our cells will operate in the ideal race conditions, as well as placement on the car for maximum energy collection.” The Solar Team has worked on finding solutions to various challenges. Zach elaborated on one particular challenge they face when the car collects solar as it moves. He elaborates:

“One challenge we're currently working on is the network of sensors used to actively monitor the health of panels in our array. Since we're limited to using a single Arduino microcontroller, all of the sensors have to reference the same power, which is bad for us since each solar panel will operate at different levels. Additionally, we're collecting a lot of data for each panel (voltage, light intensity, cell temperature) and need to send it all back to the pit station to be analyzed in real time. These kinds of problems aren't necessary for commercial panels since they sit in one place all day and collect sunlight at a fairly consistent rate.”
Zach Khan ('22)

By identifying and working through both engineering and operationally challenges, Shravani and Zach’s work provides them with the unique opportunity to gain real world problem solving experience in the sustainability sector.

Back of students sitting in rows with "UVA Solar Car" logo t-shirts
Photo from https://www.solarcaratuva.org

Another first year, Brett, leads the Braking and Steering Subteam of the Mechanical Team. The mechanical team is responsible for all non-electrical design, simulation, and manufacturing with his subteam particularly focusing on creating CAD (computer-aided design software) models of steering geometry and brake systems, while also performing analysis to optimize both systems, according to their website. Brett actually based his decision on coming to UVA on the potential to join the solar car team and gain hands-on experience. He, and many others on the Solar Car team, have found that the organization has given them the unique opportunity to learn more practical skills, from welding to using the waterjet, in combination with the theoretical engineering knowledge taught in the classroom. 

In February, Brett had the chance to design his own part and cut out the brake piece with the waterjet all by himself, a true testament to the skills he has developed over the course of the year. Currently, there are about 60 active members who are able to learn, document, and pass-down their knowledge and skills through trainings and workshops. Sebring Smith acts as their workshop manager and Professors Natasha Smith, Harry Powell and Jeffrey Boichuk help mentor and oversee their work. However, for the most part, students must take their own initiative to learn how to build and fundraise their cars. 

Students welding the parts of the solar car, wearing protective equipment
Photo from https://www.solarcaratuva.org

For this reason, the Solar Car Team has found that this first car has taken some time to build as they use it as a learning experience, collecting information and data in preparation for creating their next car through virtual stress testing and mock assemblies. Sandesh Banskota (‘20), the Engineering Director, has learned much of these skills on his own over the past few years. Through spending about ten to fifteen hours a week in the workshop working and researching, Sandesh has expanded his skills and expertise to where he can now help teach and lead other members. Everyone has the opportunity to learn, work hands-on, and teach. UVA’s Solar Car team prides themselves in making their car entirely in house, rather than designing the aeroshell and sending the design to companies to build. The team is excited to announce plans to officially complete their first car, showcasing it to supporting faculty, peers, sponsors, and parents next fall when back on Grounds. 

Click here if you’d like to donate to UVA’s Solar Car Team and learn more at www.solarcaratuva.org.