EAGLE COUNTY — When Noah Davis launched a solar car competition, he knew he had to answer one question: How fast does it go?
Really, really fast.
Davis runs Energetics Education, a nonprofit that helps young people create solutions to the world’s energy issues. If you’re going to save the world, you need to know a little about how it works or at least how its energy systems work, he says.
One step toward that is designing, building and racing solar-powered remote control cars.
Solar Rollers is Energetics Education’s flagship program. It hands all kinds of parts to teams of high school kids all over the region, and the kids make the cars go.
They run on sunshine for at least an hour. How much longer than that is what they’ll determine in May when they gather at Glenwood Springs High School to race and pray that Ra, the Egyptian sun god, is having a good day.
“It’s an energy-based competition. They’re trying to make the most of solar energy,” Davis said.
Last year was the first time they tried it, and most of the kids did the sensible thing — putting the solar panel on top of the car so they could embrace as many of the sun’s loving rays as possible. This year, they have 10 teams from eight high schools around the region.
The instructions are pretty simple.
“You have this much area to collect sunlight, and we’ll see you at the race in May,” Davis said, using his hands to create rectangle about two feet long and 18 inches wide.
They work like radio controlled cars. Most of the teams are supplied with basic materials. Energetics Education supplies the foam bumpers, the controller, wheels, suspension and most of the hundreds of other parts.
“They have to understand how it works and how to design it,” Davis said.
IDENTICAL PARTS, UNIQUE IDEAS
The teams have design freedom, but some of the cars tend to look alike because Davis gives them a big box of identical parts.
What they do with those parts, though, is entirely up to them.
“We show them a basic configuration that works. Some schools are completely designing theirs from scratch,” Davis said.
He’s heard that one school — he isn’t saying which — is working with carbon fiber to build their chassis. It’ll be lighter and the theory is that it will travel faster and further.
The teams show up with their cars and have 30 minutes to charge them. Then the green flag drops and they race for an hour.
“They have as much energy as they can harvest,” Davis said.
The competition is broken into five segments: a team panel quiz, photovoltaic top speed (no battery), top speed with storage (sunlight plus battery), two laps on the course powered only by sunlight, main circuit race consisting of 30 minutes to charge empty batteries followed by 60 minutes of circuit racing.
The cars go up to 25 mph. It’s like playing a twitchy video game for an hour. Like LeMans, they trade out drivers periodically. The teams wear matching suits. Kids on the pit crew even have all their tools with them, waiting for something to break.
The green flag drops on May 17 at Glenwood Springs High School.
They’re already looking for schools to go to the website and sign up for next year.
They tried it last year with four high schools and raced at the National Energy Lab in Golden.
“The only other place this has been done is technical colleges in France,” Davis said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.