Solar Bike Built at UI Tops 50 MPH

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

By Brian Morelli
Iowa City Press-Citizen

It’s a giant rolling banana? It’s speeding yellow torpedo?

No.

It’s a hand-made solar bike. University of Iowa Solar Bike Club, which mainly consists of College of Engineering students, constructed the bike.

A frame similar to that of a recumbent bike — reclined and low to the ground — is housed in a nine foot aerodynamic yellow fiberglass casing with solar panels on it.

When panels are charged, the rider flicks switches under the seat and a sun-powered motor surges to life and gives the vehicle a boost.

“You can’t just go buy one from Wal-Mart and copy the design,” said Daniel Rogge, an industrial engineer, the lone graduate student and captain of a fluctuating group of 10 to 20 students.

“There is a lot of physics and steering geometry involved,” he said.

The bike can hit speeds well over 50 miles per hour, Rogge said, adding he believes they will break the collegiate record of 62 mph in the near future.

Students learn a range of skills in building the bike. They must understand welding, brazing and the basic mechanics of a bike. For the solar component, students use electrical engineering to choose the right motor and design a motor control.

For the giant yellow shell, students must work with epoxy and fiberglass or carbon fiber, mold making and fluid dynamics.

“It requires a whole lot of skills,” Rogge said.

The group formed two years ago after receiving grant funding from the Iowa Energy Center to create a competitive bike. They get $14,000 annually plus get help from places like World of Bikes.

At the most recent competition, the annual Solar BikeRayce USA in Topeka, Kan. on May 31 and June 1, they achieved the fastest lap time. They also garnered a second-place finish in their class and a third-place finish overall among 32 teams.

They also competed in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Human Powered Vehicle Challenge April 25-27, and achieved the second-fastest men’s time and third-fastest women’s time in the sprint, and placed third overall in the endurance race against 44 other college teams.

Rogge, who has a background in antique car restoration, hopes to someday stop focusing on meeting the competition rules and evolve the invention into a mainstream commuter vehicle.

For now though, he is happy helping students learn about engineering.

“Students get into it because they want to get their hands on the welding torch and making something. Plus, it is fun to ride these,” Rogge said.