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Here's What's New under the Sun

by Jeff Worley

Left row (starting in front): Dale Reid, undergraduate; Christine Trinkle, Ph.D. student (now at UC Berkeley); Chris Morgan, Ph.D. student; Matt Hayden, grad student; B. J. Hinkle, undergraduate. Right row (starting in front): Karen Robb, undergraduate; Bianca McCartt, grad student; Kirk Stechschulte, undergraduate; Robert Greer, undergraduate. Far right: Scott Stephens. Seated in the car: Kirk Fallis, undergraduate

If you saw Gato del Sol round the track and screech to a halt right in front of you, you might expect some kind of caped crusader to step out. Gato del Sol, named for the 1982 Kentucky Derby winner, was built by a cadre of current and former UK students, primarily from engineering. It took four years and about $100,000 to build.

It's a true mix-and-match creation: It has shocks from a mountain bike, a steering wheel from a kid's dragster, and various other donated parts, all wrapped in an aluminum frame and UK-blue fiberglass body.

Last May, the solar car competed in the Formula Sun Grand Prix in Topeka, Kansas, the first time a UK-built solar car had run in that race.

"We did well, I'd say, especially since we're really new at this," says Scott Stephens, a UK associate professor of mechanical engineering who advises the group of 20-plus students. UK placed second in the stock class in the three-day, 2.1 mile race, trailing only Kansas State University.

Solar cars are powered entirely by the energy of the sun, through photovoltaic solar cells that charge batteries. A 1,000-pound car runs at an average speed of 35 mph. Since there are limitations on how much energy can be generated and stored, solar cars must be energy-efficient to maximize the speed and distance the car can travel, which is accomplished by making the car as light as possible and minimizing wind resistance.

In 2003, the team's rookie year in competition, the car was entered in the American Solar Challenge, a 10-day run from Chicago to California along famous Route 66. "Our inexperience showed," says Stephens. "Due to overcast skies and mechanical problems, the Gato del Sol failed to finish the 140-mile qualifying race."

But just being given the white flag to compete in the race is an accomplishment, Stephens says.

"This year there were four schools that didn't pass what race officials call 'scrutineering,' so these schools didn't get to ride at all. That's fairly common, especially on your first try. When you go in, you have a list of requirements your car has to meet—braking and steering requirements, maneuverability. If the car isn't solid and sound enough, you can't even get into the race."

A handful of UK students started this project four years ago, Stephens says, and that group has ballooned to over 25 current and former students.

Former students?

"Yeah, this has been most amazing to me. Each year we have UK grads from Lexmark and other businesses in the community who come back and work with this group. That's how excited the students get about this.

"We always talk about teamwork in our curriculum and try to have team-building experiences in our engineering classes. On a project like this, with so many students, the mechanical people have to learn how to talk to the electrical people so that everything works. It's teamwork with a capital 'T.'"

Another benefit for students, he adds, is being able to apply classroom work to real-life situations.

"A lot of students go through the engineering program and think, 'Well, there's a lot of math here that I probably won't ever use after I graduate.' These kids find out that the math actually works. I think it really gives them new appreciation for what they're learning in class."

Gato Del Sol is a project heavily dependent on the kindness of strangers, Stephens says. Team sponsors that donate various auto parts (or cash) include SunPower Corporation, Ashland Specialty Chemical Company, Kentucky Transportation Center, Risse Racing Technology, Fifth Third Bank, EnerSys Inc., Hydro-Aluminum, and others.

"The 'Big Blue Bomb' is what we call it," jokes Chris Morgan, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering and a veteran member of the solar team. "We're still learning."

Entire In Brief section as pdf