UI Engineering Students Building Solar Car, Driving to All 99 Iowa Counties

By Lynn Anderson Davy
University of Iowa Strategic Communication

Starting a new student club is one thing. But starting the club while also raising $80,000 to build a solar car, visiting all 99 counties in Iowa with that car, and competing for the first time in one of the biggest collegiate solar car races in North America? Well, that’s setting the bar pretty high.

But that’s exactly what a group of UI College of Engineering students did when they decided to revamp the school’s American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) club. Besides recruiting dozens of new members, they also are busy fundraising and spending many hours in the workshop creating a solar speed machine.

“Sure, we’re probably crazy for taking this on, but we’re also having a great time recruiting people from different majors to join the solar car project,” says UI ASME president Winston Wallingford, a junior from Farmington, Iowa. “We have mechanical, electrical, industrial, and biomedical majors all contributing time and energy to our project. It’s been a great opportunity to build connections with classmates, learn from each other, and pick up new skills.”

So far, the UI ASME solar car team has raised about $10,000 from local sponsors, and in addition, a fundraiser on the University of Iowa’s crowdfunding site, GOLDrush, has put students within $800 of raising an additional $4,000, money that will go to buying the battery supplies they’ll need for the American Solar Challenge race. This year, the biennial event will kick off in Omaha, Nebraska, and wind through 1,700 miles of open road to the finish line in Bend, Oregon.

Besides fundraising efforts, the team got a big boost when members of the Iowa State University solar car team, PrISUm, gave the UI team a used solar car aluminum frame and carbon fiber shell, valued at $17,000. It can take a lot of money to build a solar car, so the hand-me-downs will save the UI team significant cash and shop time, says Francisco Fidalgo, an exchange student from Lisbon, Portugal, who is taking courses at the College of Engineering this year, and who also serves as business chair of the solar car team.

“As a new campus club, we expected to have some challenges, especially when taking on such a big project,” Fidalgo says. “And so it was a huge boost to receive the solar car frame and shell from Iowa State. They showed us that despite the fact that our schools are rivals, they believe in us and in our project.”

Competing in the American Solar Challenge, which takes place July 14–22, will be teams from universities across the nation, as well as Canada, Russia, Italy, and Saudi Arabia. It’s a chance for the UI team to match its engineering know-how against other students, as well as test classroom learning in a real-world setting.

“I have always enjoyed cars, and as I continue to study in the field of mechanical engineering, I am diving even deeper into the complex systems that make a vehicle work,” says Maxwell Hubbard, a junior from Indianapolis, Indiana, who serves as mechanical lead for the project. “This experience has allowed me to apply what I know, but more importantly it has allowed me to learn what I don’t, and that is why I participate.” 

The team holds weekly meetings to discuss mechanical and electrical issues. They often meet in a workshop in the basement of the Chemistry Building, a space that provides room for their car, tools, and work benches. Photo by Justin Torner.

In addition to the interstate race, the team also has plans to drive their solar car, which only has room for the driver, through all 99 Iowa counties. In each county, the team will visit a local school or county fairground in hopes of spreading the word about STEM subjects, including renewable energy sources such as solar power. The dates for the Iowa tour have yet to be confirmed, but it will occur after the American Solar Challenge, either in late July or early August.

In order to track their progress on the solar car, students have created a detailed Excel spreadsheet, and they hold weekly meetings to discuss mechanical and electrical issues. They often meet in a workshop in the basement of the Chemistry Building, a space that provides room for their car, tools and work benches, as well as a makeshift club room with a couch and white boards. It’s here, amid the clutter of backpacks and notebooks, that students plot a summer of solar cruising and STEM adventures.

“In lots of ways, even with the donated shell, we’re starting from scratch,” says Noelle Kohnke, a sophomore from Chicago, Illinois. “We’re trying to overcome the learning curve as fast as possible, and I’m confident we will. Every day we know more than the last and our confidence increases, but it still feels like trying to build an airplane while falling, which keeps us on our toes.”

And for Fidalgo, whose exchange year will end soon, there’s also the realization that in the U.S., some dreams do come true.

“There is an idea that the U.S. is the land of opportunities,” he said. “And while I didn’t expect to take part in this specific project, I certainly came to the University of Iowa with the objective of enjoying all the opportunities possible. I feel like this experience will stay with me for a very long time.”

To watch news coverage from KCRG-TV, go to http://www.kcrg.com/content/news/UI-students-prepping-solar-car-for-big-...

To watch a video about the solar car, by Matt Jansen and Nick Tomlonovic, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=5&v=DSEYeVygVdQ

To watch a video about the solar car, produced by Iowa City Channel on Facebook, go to https://www.facebook.com/CityofIowaCity/videos/1268256789940646/?hc_ref=...

Members of the UI ASME club at the College of Engineering are building a solar car with hopes of competing in a cross-country race and visiting all 99 Iowa counties. To make their dream come true, they are trying to raise $80,000 through fundraising and sponsorship. Photo by Justin Torner.