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The University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project is home to some very bright students who are sure to become science and engineering leaders of tomorrow. The team recently completed a journey that began with the design of a new Solar Vehicle and ended on the other side of the world in a race across the Australian Outback. This story explains how they did it.
The University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project is home to some rising stars in the world of science and engineering. The student-founded, student-led group in the University’s College of Science and Engineering first formed in 1991 and has been producing futuristic, energy-efficient solar vehicles ever since.
The group’s most recent creation—a sleek, silver, 4-wheeled, solar-powered vehicle that looks like something Steve McQueen would drive—was recently showcased in a 3,000-kilometer trek across the Australian Outback.
Powered by the sun, the student team performed beautifully after designing and building the car in just 10 months. The solar vehicle crossed the finish line of the 2013 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge in Adelaide last October, leaving the students with a major sense of accomplishment. Along with valuable, hands-on engineering experience, the students gained a sense of satisfaction that stems from a job well done. They also have a great story to tell during job interviews.
Based in Minneapolis-St. Paul, The University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project challenges students to create solar powered vehicles that are clean, fuel-efficient, fast and—above all— safe.
Students taking part in the challenge break up into several teams that work collaboratively to see the project through from start to finish to race time. The teams cover aerodynamics, solar arrays, electrical, mechanical, and business, respectively. The Solar Vehicle Project uses PTC Creo and other software tools donated by corporate sponsors and individuals. PTC also supports higher education through its PTC Academic Program for universities.
“We work with a lot of software programs including PTC Creo that are used in the actual real-world, real-life jobs,” said Michael Ellis, an aerospace engineering major who works on the Solar Vehicle Project’s aerospace team. “That allows students to transition into their jobs a lot easier as well as giving them other experience such as design applications and tool experience.”
As a member of the aerospace team, Ellis helped create the shell of the solar vehicle, which is covered in solar arrays, and helped make sure that the vehicle minimized drag.
“We are in charge of primarily the aerodynamics of the car and how the car opens and closes, and we work with other teams, such as the mechanical team and the electrical engineering team, to place certain components, such as the battery box and the motor,” Ellis said. “We designed all of this in PTC Creo.”
Participants also had to get creative when creating key safety components, such as the roll cage and the carbon fiber chassis, which had to be strong enough to protect the driver. Those components needed to be as light as possible without compromising safety, said Bryan Dean, a senior in the University’s mechanical engineering department and Solar Vehicle Project leader.
“If your chassis isn’t strong enough or your roll cage isn’t able to withstand a rollover then your driver is in danger,” Dean said. To ensure safety, Dean and his team tested the vehicle to ensure that it could “withstand an impact from every direction in case of a roll.”
PTC Creo proved to be a valuable tool, especially when it came to making sure that the solar vehicles various components fit together properly, said Toni Carlstrom, a sophomore mechanical engineering major and leader of the Solar Vehicle Project’s mechanical team.
“I designed all the parts that hold the batteries in place,” Carlstrom said. “I modeled them in PTC Creo, and I only had one chance to get it right. Then we used 3D printing and the batteries and housing fit in perfectly.”
Using PTC Creo, the various teams that make up the Solar Vehicle Project were able to easily collaborate on design plans and make sure all aspects of the project proceeded smoothly.
“The reason we were able to make it happen so quickly is that we have a shared model of the car in PTC Creo. We can easily access different revisions, make sure everything is up to date, keep everything on track, and have everyone constantly checking each other, to see if they are making sense or not,” Carlstrom explained. “Without PTC Creo, it would have taken much longer, because we would not be able to coordinate with each other as easily.”
But the sense of teamwork was perhaps most evident when the students successfully completed the World Solar Challenge, having reached speeds exceeding 80 mph with batteries powered entirely by the sun.
“I’ll never forget that,” said Neil Dencklau, a senior in the University’s engineering department and former Solar Vehicle Project leader. “Running across the finish line was just an unbelievable experience.”
The University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project produces results both in terms of technology—as participants push the envelope of what a solar vehicle can do—and in the lives of students, who will have memories to share for a lifetime with friends and potential employers alike.
On the technological front, students got the results they needed with PTC Creo, which helped them model virtually every component, Dencklau explained.
“I worked on the suspension system primarily, and everything that goes along with that like the hubs, the rims, uprights, the A-arms, and then some of the steering system,” he said. “Using PTC Creo, we were able to create concepts very quickly and efficiently, and go through iterations very fast.”
The Solar Vehicle Project will also go a long way to ensuring that these students produce real-world results in the workplace.
“I believe that the solar vehicle project will help me get a job,” declared Ellis. “The University has a job fair every single semester where we can talk to different prospective employers. One of the main things I talk about is the solar car, and they’re very interested.”