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A Place in the Sun

Come ride with U of T's solar car racing team, cutting-edge crusaders for a cleaner future

Bright sunlight bathes a weather-beaten runway at the old Downsview airbase on Toronto’s northern fringes. In the distance, a lone aircraft idles on the tarmac, its engines cracking the silence of a September Sunday. The airfield is virtually deserted but for six earnest 20-somethings intently eyeing a space-age go-kart whirring along the asphalt.

Members of the University of Toronto’s Blue Sky Solar Racing team are shaking the dust off their beloved sun-powered car after it has spent two months in the garage. In July, without a drop of gasoline, the fragile-looking Faust II raced 3,700 kilometres from Chicago to Los Angeles as part of the biennial American Solar Challenge. But Faust is showing signs of fatigue, and the day is cut short by a minor mechanical problem. “We just wanted to make sure it still works,” says Tom Rodinger, a PhD student in biochemistry and biomedical engineering who oversees the car’s sensory electronics and electrical system. “We’ll be back here to do more testing.”

You quickly learn patience when you’re on a mission from the sun god. And there are times, to be sure, when Blue Sky seems much more than a club. After all, how many student organizations offer competition in exotic locales, the chance to work with leading-edge technology and a shot at saving the world from environmental meltdown?

Solar team members develop invaluable skills around teamwork, fundraising and project management, and bolster their job prospects in the process. The club even attracts big-name sponsors such as Bombardier Aerospace and Research in Motion Ltd., the wireless wizards based in Waterloo, Ont. “At U of T, we strive to ensure that the student experience is rich and diverse, and that it extends beyond the classroom,” says Provost Shirley Neuman. “The Blue Sky Solar Racing team is a wonderful example of an extracurricular project that connects learning with doing.”

Sometimes, though, the lessons are hard. For every high point along the way – meeting the Queen or racing through the desert on Route 66 – Blue Sky’s students have faced roadblocks and speed bumps. Even so, the team is now stepping up to its biggest test: building a new car that can actually compete with the best in the world.

But competitiveness costs. At the world’s two premier races – the American Solar Challenge and Australia’s World Solar Challenge – the winning cars boast state-of-the-art materials and expertise. The Dutch team that captured this year’s world crown was sponsored in part by the Dutch government and boasted an astronaut as technical adviser. The cutting-edge car that Blue Sky hopes to race in 2005 could cost more than $150,000, but the team is determined to raise the money and assemble the technology needed to win. “We’ve indicated to the world that we’re ready to be players,” says team manager David Nam (who is studying philosophy and political science). “If you tell us we can’t do it, it’s just going to push us harder.”

Since it was launched eight years ago, Blue Sky has ballooned into one of the biggest clubs on campus, both in dollar terms and membership. Recruiting drives, held every fall, attract as many as 150 students from a variety of disciplines.

It’s a far cry from 1996, when a small group of engineering students approached then-dean of applied science and engineering Michael Charles for help. Inspired by the success of solar-racing clubs at other Ontario universities such as Queen’s and Waterloo, they wanted to form their own team. “I didn’t say, ‘This is something you should do or think about,’” says Charles. “They were the ones who identified their keen enthusiasm to put U of T in the solar-car business.”

The club’s pioneers scrambled to assemble a car for Sunrayce 97, a cross-country race in June 1997 from Indiana to Colorado. It was a rude awakening for a very green team. Its solar car, Blue Sky Project, was patched together with kitchen-sink technology. “It was very Frankenstein-ish,” says Nam. The team failed even to qualify for the race.

Two years later, with a new car (Blue II), the team won the Top Rookie award in Sunrayce 99, driving from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Fla., in 83 road hours – good for 20th spot out of 29 teams. But there was still much to do.

Enter Faust. Named for the German professor who bargained with the devil in his thirst for knowledge and experience, Blue Sky’s third car marked a major leap in sophistication. The tubular aluminum chassis weighed just 8.2 kg, compared with Blue II’s 14 kg. Instead of lead-acid batteries, it sported leading-edge lithium-ion polymer cells. With its lower weight and more aerodynamic design, Faust attained a top speed of 130 km/h, compared with 80 km/h for Blue II.

The improved technology led the team to 12th place in the first American Solar Challenge – a gruelling 3,700-km sprint from Chicago to Los Angeles along the legendary Route 66. Later that summer, the team participated in the World Solar Challenge in Australia – through 3,000 kilometres of outback – where it placed 14th, just ahead of arch-rival Waterloo.

But there was no joy in Blue Skyville. In the U.S. race, a manufacturing flaw had reduced the efficiency of Faust’s $125,000 solar array – composed of more than 3,000 silicon photovoltaic cells – to a level only marginally better than that of Blue II.

Then, in August 2002, Faust was damaged in a freak accident during a promotional tour with two other solar car teams. Driver David Nam suffered a broken foot when the low-slung Faust was hit by an automobile near Belleville, Ont. Faust itself was a write-off. “The team was pretty shook up,” recalls Jessica van Vliet, a political science student who managed the project from 2001 until 2003.

To help the club regroup, engineering dean Anastasios Venetsanopoulos asked engineering professor Stefan Zukotynski to serve as its faculty adviser. The team rebounded phenomenally, says Zukotynski, an expert in photovoltaic technology. Building on established designs and using more modern equipment, Blue Sky built another car at a fraction of the cost of Faust, and in half the time.

Sponsors and friends also stepped in to help. Credit-card supplier MBNA Canada, a U of T affinity partner, kicked in $40,000. Bombardier Aerospace provided composite materials for the body. Electrovaya Corp. of Mississauga, Ont., contributed advanced batteries, and Multimatic Inc. of Markham, Ont., provided expertise and access to shop space.

The appeal even crossed borders. Learning of the team’s predicament, Sunwize Technologies of Kingston, N.Y., threw open its facilities to help the team build a new solar array. Team members Rajnesh Singh, Kathryn Nikkanen, Tom Rodinger, Tony Chan, Mike Belov and Nader Zaag travelled to the factory and, with the help of Sunwize designer John Martin, worked 12 hours a day for a week. “Their dedication and their work ethic were really unbelievable,” says Martin. And so was his: when a donation of photovoltaic cells fell through, Martin found a supplier to provide cells at cost.

For two months, team members attended classes by day and worked on the car by night. “Everybody’s GPA dropped,” says Nam, a 30-year-old Toronto native. “Fortunately, we’ve got a lot of geniuses on this team.”

After the drama of putting their car back on the road, last summer the team faced the moment of truth: qualifying for the 2003 American Solar Challenge. Getting the car to Chicago and ready for inspection involved overcoming an almost endless series of challenges (see “Solar Race Diaries”). “You put your heart and soul into the car, you stretch your engineering capability to the limit, you’re totally wiped out – and then you throw it on the road for testing,” says van Vliet. After tense hours of waiting, Blue Sky passed inspection. “That was the ‘omigod, we did it!’ part of the race,” she says.

Andreas Marouchos (second year engineering science) and Brendan Slyne (second year mechanical engineering) shared driving duties, enclosed in a claustrophobic cockpit and lying inches off the ground. “At times it could get a bit hairy, especially when you were on the Interstate and you were being passed by a semi, which is much bigger than you are,” says Marouchos, 21. “It takes a little bit of practice.”

Typically, Faust II travelled with a chase vehicle trailing behind, shielding the car from conventional traffic, and two lead vehicles in front, top-mounted red lights flashing. Both were in constant radio contact with Faust’s driver.

Race days started by 8 or 9 a.m. and lasted nine hours, with the two drivers splitting the load as evenly as possible. The Solar Challenge is a staged race, with regular stops each day to give fans and the media a chance to see the cars and meet the competitors. “The atmosphere was electric,” recalls Marouchos. “I signed many an autograph.”

Although the competition is good-natured, racing takes its toll. “There’s no rest, and it’s constant work,” says Nam. “Once we got into the racing mode,” adds Marouchos, “we were mostly tired and mostly hungry and just wanted to get some sleep.”

In the end, the team finished the course in 79 hours, 51 minutes, good for 11th place. (It also won an award for safest competitor.) Considering the obstacles they had overcome, team members were overjoyed. In fact, notes van Vliet, Faust II came second among vehicles with similar technology. Most of the teams that beat Blue Sky had more advanced gallium-arsenide arrays, the same material used on space satellites. “We had comments from other teams like, ‘We can’t believe you guys pulled this off,’” she says. “The entire team considers that an accomplishment.”

Unable to close the technology gap, the team decided to sit out October’s 2003 World Challenge in Australia. Skipping this legendary competition was a tough decision. But as Zukotynski says, “It was obvious that, with the silicon array, we could not place in the top 10 in North America, and certainly not the world.”

Now, all sights are set on 2005 and placing in the top five in both the American and Australian races. Along with the battle-hardened veterans, a new crop of students is flocking to the project, drawn by a sense of excitement, the hands-on experience and the allure of alternative energy.

Faust’s unique design is part of the attraction – what Nam calls the “cool factor.” Mere glimpses of the low-slung solar car have been known to provoke double takes, slack jaws and obsessive staring. “It’s such a powerful visual image,” says van Vliet. “It speaks volumes with just a picture.”

The club is also capturing the imagination of sponsors, who will become increasingly important to the team’s success. When Research in Motion signed on last June, it donated cash and 10 Blackberry mobile devices worth about $10,000. Dave Jaworsky, RiM’s manager of government and university relations, says investing in solar racing makes sense for the company, which is always looking to hire bright young engineers. “It was a natural fit to increase our awareness among U of T students, and especially their top-achieving students.”

“They’re running virtually a small company,” he says of the team. “When we look for staff, one thing we look for is leadership skills, and where you find that, particularly with young people, is in things they do outside the norm.”

Increasingly, students are coming to the club from a variety of disciplines. The less technically gifted members contribute through fundraising, event planning, publication production and other tasks. And although the first racers were all men, women now comprise at least 20 per cent of team membership.

Still, few new members realize how addictive the club can become. In the year before a race, the most active students dedicate hundreds of hours to the project. “It’s very enriching as an experience and as an adventure,” notes Nam. “But many of us pay quite a heavy price. Failing courses is definitely a common occurrence.”

Van Vliet, 24, has no regrets about occasionally focusing more on the solar car than on classwork. “If there’s an activity of worth, a chance to engage with extremely intelligent and dynamic people, and make my life richer in the process, I’d be a fool not to do it.”

She especially enjoys promoting alternative energy, which is part of the team’s mission. Blue Sky regularly visits schools, auto shows and shopping malls to discuss solar racing and green power. Van Vliet and Tomek Bartczak (BASc Engineering Science 2002) helped represent the university at a special “best of Ontario” show marking Queen Elizabeth’s 2002 visit to Toronto. As the Queen strolled by, the patched-up Faust caught her eye and she stopped to chat. “She said, ‘Oh, a solar car, how mah-vellous!’” recalls van Vliet. “I would have laughed if I hadn’t been so nervous.”

But nothing beats winning a race, and Nam is convinced victory is near. “We’ve got the talent and we’ve got the knowledge base,” he says. “The only thing holding us back is the solar array.” For 2005, the club will try to obtain a state-of-the-art array, which could cost well over $100,000. Zukotynski and the club hope to find a sponsor who can supply the components, although they are also considering an “adopt-a-cell” fundraising program.

In reality, however, Blue Sky is already a winner. Team members’ commitment to alternative energy is part of their own personal crusades for a cleaner environment and a sustainable future. The Blue Sky racers are still too idealistic to accept a future condemned to destruction by fossil fuels, says Nam. “It’s us, the students, who are totally naive, saying, ‘No, we’re not going to accept that, and we are going to do something.’” Patient and committed, these students have no doubt that the power that can propel a car across a continent can also change the world.

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