The Solar Car passion project at the University of Calgary

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Many bright university students worldwide are working to develop renewable energy solutions for the future. Some have taken on the challenge of designing energy-efficient, solar-powered cars and competing in solar car distance races. We at Caldaro are happy to announce that one of those teams reached out to us: the University of Calgary Solar Car Team in Canada. We will sponsor their new solar car with our pedals.

Their Team Captain is Maxwell Shedd. He’s 20 and in his third year studying Mechanical Engineering and Business.

”I’ve been with the team since my first year at the university. I was looking for a cool, engineering passion project to be part of. I joined the communications department, writing, for example, technical articles and doing event work. I love the community work we do for schools and the university”, says Maxwell.

He continues: ”The big moment for me was last year when we went to race, and I was part of the team that helped prepare at the shop. When I joined the team, everything was online because of Covid-19, so being in the shop and being active hands-on with the car was just fantastic for me”.

Today Maxwell is the Team Captain for 80 active members. Anthony Nemish, also 20 years old, is the Sponsorship Team Manager responsible for a team of business students. He’s in his second year studying Mechanical Engineering. He’s the one who got in touch with Caldaro with the exciting request of sponsoring their car with pedals.

”I also joined the team in my first year at the university. I ended up with the Solar Car project because, first and foremost, we live in Alberta, a province in Canada very well established for its oil and gas presence. That is what our entire economy is built on, and as great as that is, I want to see a bit more change and push towards renewable energies. I know that change isn’t happening unless we get involved ourselves; so we need to spark that change”, Anthony emphasizes.

”Maybe the change isn’t here yet, but if we want to start seeing that change, it’s something we students can catalyse at a university level – instead of just waiting for it to exist”.

How it all started

The Solar Car Team started way back in 2004. There was a big competition in North America called The North America Solar car challenge, and the race went from Texas to Calgary (3290 km). This triggered the University of Calgary to get its own Solar Car Team. They talked to a couple of graduate students, pulled together a bunch of funding, and essentially the students on campus built a car within nine months to race in the North America Solar Car Challenge 2005. About 20 teams were competing, and U Calgary’s team came in thirteenth place.

This led to taking the Solar Car to the World Solar Challenge, and they placed first in class in that competition. ”Which was a huge achievement, but we were also, I think, the only car in that class…”, says Maxwell and laughs.

Solar cars compete in two vehicle classes: Single-Occupant Vehicles (SOV) and Multi-Occupant Vehicles (MOV).

”SOVs look like UFOs, and they seat just one person; they are meant to be super-efficient to maximise time and speed”, Maxwell explains. ”A MOV, like our car, has more than one person inside and typically has a larger battery capacity and more solar array space. MOV is also more focused on pushing the consumer aspects of the technology, rather than just the racing aspect”.

A car designed to seat four people

In their last car, the Schulich Elysia, cupholders were a big thing. A team that built one of the earlier cars was very proud they could fit and store golf clubs in the trunk. The new car the team is constructing, the Schulich Helios, will seat four people and have many more consumer features. They plan to have backup cameras, rear view, blindspot protection systems, and infotainment with a couple of dashboards showing how much energy they are using and how much energy is stored in the battery.

One of the neat perks about the MOV class is that they will get the score multiplied by how many people sit in the car. For example, if the car drives 100 km and you have two people inside the car, you get 200 points. If you have four people, 400 points. However, seating more people inside the car and more inboard usage means they will need more energy, so they are trying to expand the battery capacity. Now, how fast can these solar-powered cars go? Maxwell answers:

”Typically, we try to save as much energy as possible in competitions. The competition lasts three days; we drive 8 hours a day and get scores based on how far we go. We don’t want to use all our energy, so typically, we drive the car around 50-60km/h during the actual competitions”.

”Some of the smaller solar cars, the single occupant vehicles, can get up to 140 km/h. When they compete, they can also cruise at around 80-90 km/h, depending on their efficiency. Obviously, because our car is bigger, it also drives slower, but we can get to carry four people; it’s a bit of a trade-off there”.

The solar panels are not to be touched

When handling a solar car, never touching the solar panels is important.

”One thing you never think of before you have handled a solar car is that the panels are really fragile”, Anthony points out. ”There are caution tapes all over the car saying ‘do not touch the top panels’ because anything from the oil from your skin to a little dirt can interfere with the cells and therefore decrease our charging capacity”.

”We have our panels encapsulated with the film on top, but basically, it refracts light into the panels to make them more efficient”, Maxwell fills in. ”The issue with touching the car is that the oils from your skin can fill in the gaps between the textures on the panels, and it reduces their efficiency. It takes a lot of maintenance to clean the panels”.

The equation of energy in and energy out

The general challenge of designing solar cars is to solve the equation of the energy that gets into the solar panels and how much energy the car uses.

”We need to be very energy conscious about what our car uses in terms of electricity”, Maxwell points out. ”We put a lot of effort into ensuring that the car is optimised aerodynamically because if our aerodynamics aren’t on game, then it’s a huge power loss on our motors for operating more intensely to meet the demand. Weight is also a big thing for us to make sure the car is light because, again, that puts more stress on the motors.”

”Then we have all the different electrical systems inside of the car; for example, we’re implementing an infotainment system”, Maxwell continues.

”Our team is making a lot of effort to make sure that the screens that we put into the car, don’t drain a ton of power”.

Searching for pedals that fit their technical specifications

Then they will, of course, need high-quality pedals, and that’s why Anthony got in touch with Caldaro.

˝We had the technical specifics required from the suspension folks, and we googled and reviewed lots of companies. There are many companies out there that, for one reason or another, have very little flexibility. Caldaro’s pedals are used for all sorts of user cases, which we thought was perfect. We are the most unconventional use case of all!” says Anthony.

”In the kind of work we do, it’s common that the companies try to push their existing products onto us. Funnily enough, when we contacted Caldaro, they weren’t just sending us a product. Instead, once they had all the specifications, they were able to immediately configure the design of their P09 pedal and send it to the factory and start manufacturing our pedals! That’s really appreciated”.

Will we drive solar-powered cars in the future?

Anthony and Maxwell agree that the future might not be exactly solar-powered cars, but more likely electric vehicles that use solar panels as a compliment. It would be useful for small vehicles like golf carts, but there are already aeroplanes with solar panels on their wings.

”Solar energy is a great solution when you’re looking for a renewable way to power your vehicle in circumstances where it might not be easy to power it otherwise”, says Anthony, ”like boats or planes”.

”For example, a lot of satellites are all solar powered completely because you can’t charge a satellite when it’s out in orbit”, Maxwell adds. ”I saw this guy on YouTube making a bush plane with solar panels. When he’s in the bush for a few days, he can charge up his plane, and if he wants to use energy for other devices, he can plug it into his plane and get the energy that way”.

”I don’t think we will ever see commercial solar cars on the market, but I think we will see solar car technology implemented into cars, especially as we see cars go electric”, Maxwell emphazises. ”I think all of us in the Solar Car Team will help instil a good culture about being aware of sustainable developments; we will carry these over when going to the industry and be cautious about how our engineering decisions impact the climate and the environment. Our team’s engineers will develop electric cars for you to drive in a few years.”

Note:

The Schulich Elysia placed third in the 2022 Formula Sun Grand Prix and first(!) in the MOV class in the 2019 Formula Sun Grand Prix.

The new model of their solar car, which will use Caldaro’s pedals, is planned to be ready in September 2024. We look forward to seeing the result!


Here’s a video about their solar car from 2020:

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