A solar roller – a flat, 3-foot-long, PV-powered speed demon operated by remote control – zoomed around the first turn of the Solar Rollers track at Intersolar North America without a problem. The second curve proved more troublesome for driver Dave Slater.
The roller slammed into a track barrier, built by solar mounting systems supplier Unirac, and its rear wheels jumped-up from the course. Nothing was damaged during that crash or a dozen or so subsequent ones, but the impacts elicited a few “aahs.”
“It’s just they go so epically fast, how do you not crash?” Slater asked, without overstating the speed. In a good straightaway, solar rollers can reach 28 mph.
Energy Crash Course
While Slater tested the rollers’ endurance, a crowd was gathering for an upcoming race. Racers, including Stephen Lemrond, a contracts manager at Unirac, and 17-year-old George Jouflas of Battle Mountain High School in Colorado, prepared for action on the speedway platform, controllers in hand. Slater would be the announcer.
During the race, Intersolar attendees got a taste of how Energetics Ed, a non-profit organization based in Colorado, teaches energy-based climate change solutions to young people. Solar Rollers is the organization’s flagship program. It challenges high school teams to design, build and race sophisticated solar-powered remote control cars.
Solar Rollers do not represent a technological leap in terms of what engineers already know about photovoltaic technology. However, for high school students, the little cars represent an exciting opportunity for project-based STEM education.
Student teams are motivated to brainstorm improvements to the mechanical and electrical efficiency of the car, while also maximizing the electricity generated by the solar array, the materials for which are donated by Silevo. The specifics are left up to the teams.
The track at Intersolar was built from scrap Unirac SolarMount, splice bars and L-feet products. Sales operations specialist Chris Woodward and others spent more than 100 hours building the curvy course at Unirac’s facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
When it was finished, Unirac employees rummaged through garages for remote-control cars. “I encouraged everyone at Unirac to put the track through the paces, run into the walls and make sure it was strong,” says Woodward. The solar-mounts-turned-race-track seem to have held up fine.
The race, once it got started a little after 3 p.m. Tuesday, saw many more exhilarating collisions, both car-on-car and car-into-wall. The cars were fine, though, as they were outfitted with protective bumpers. Dozens of solar professionals watched the spectacle.
“We like what Energetics is trying to do,” Woodward said. “They’re expanding solar education into the schools by using fun. It’s amazing how much fun you can have with 90-degree angles and bolts. It’s also good because this doesn’t stop at Intersolar. They’re taking this track with them to other events.”
The race wasn’t close. While the cars can reach high speeds, the battery requires frequent charging. Racers who weren’t aware of the limitations found themselves moving at a snail’s pace around the track. In the end, White Lightning, driven by 17-year-old Jouflas, beat the competition. Jouflas drove 55 laps in 15 minutes.
“Half the age and twice the intelligence of everyone up there,” Slater announced, congratulating the victor.
What was his secret?
“Drive fast when you need to, otherwise conserve energy,” Jouflas said. “That, and cut other people off.”
Energetics Ed is looking for sponsors. The program has been trialed in Colorado, but executive director Noah Davis wants to make the program national. He’s optimistic.
“People are here to sell things, but people are also very enthusiastic about being involved with the program as it grows,” Davis says.
More information can be found here or at the Solar Rollers track, located at the back of the second floor at Intersolar North America.