Faster than a speeding iSun

Faster than a speeding iSun McGill University

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McGill Reporter
January 16, 2003 - Volume 35 Number 08
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 35: 2002-2003 > January 16, 2003 > Faster than a speeding iSun

Season in the iSun

The main streets of St. Jerome are lined with people jostling for a view -- children push to the front, while others clamber on to their parents' backs. After all, everyone loves a parade -- but where are the marching bands? Where are the floats? Where is the noise?

Actually, were it not for the murmuring of the crowd, you wouldn't know there was a parade at all, because the showpieces of the spectacle are nearly silent as they drive by -- electric cars, electric bikes, electric scooters even an electric delivery truck.

The parade is associated with the St. Jerome Conference on Urban Transport, but out here the stars aren't the bureaucrats and urban planners, or even the half-dozen Hydro-Québec utility vehicles. A truck is a truck, after all, even if you can't hear the engine. A slick looking racecar is another matter. Make that a solar-powered racecar and you have a real head turner. When the sleek curves of McGill's Team iSun solar racer cruises by, you can see the children stare.

"Ne touchez pas!"

One hour later and the Team iSun students who made the trip to St. Jerome are showing off their baby to curious onlookers while simultaneously trying to keep grubby paws off of the car's delicate solar cells -- which are worth about $30,000.

The solar car is by far the most popular exhibit in the hockey rink cum showroom -- competing with exhibits on solar-powered boats and an electric zamboni. The crowds are such that the team is eventually forced to erect pylons around the car.

"We get the same questions again and again -- How do you get in? How fast does it go? Can it run at night?" said weary student Elie Sarraf, who is getting almost as much attention from the locals for his fiberglass leg cast (soccer accident) as the car.

First of all getting in: the car, which is shaped like a giant curved rectangle with a jet-fighters cockpit dome in the centre, consists of the bottom chassis in which the driver lies almost prone. The upper shell -- which is coated with 452 solar cells -- is then lowered over him or her. It's not exactly luxurious -- during the parade Nick Verzeni was noticeably uncomfortable and sweating from the combined effects of the greenhouse-like canopy and the heat of the motor. There's no air conditioning -- heck, there isn't even a headrest.

The car can reach speeds of about 120 km/hr. It doesn't sound like much, but considering it runs on the same amount of power as a hairdryer, it's pretty impressive. Driving it is quite the experience. Although the top speed is only cruising speed on Quebec's highways, the iSun is a lot closer to the ground.

"It seems like you're going a lot faster," said Verzeni.

And yes, it does run at night, for distances up to 250 km, courtesy of the 25 lithium ion batteries contained within.

Normally the power comes from the 1200 watts generated by the hundreds of solar cells that cover the upper shell of the vehicle. To a non-engineer, the process of turning sunlight into electricity is a little like magic. In reality, when the sun's rays strikes the photovoltaic (solar cell) panels, which are made from silicon crystal, they tap into the potential energy between layers of positive and negative materials. That energy flows into electrodes and into the iSun's electrical systems.

"We'd like to have more of these kinds of projects," said mechanical engineering associate professor Peter Radziszewski, who has served as the team's faculty advisor since 2001.

"These multidisciplinary projects allow students to develop the people skills -- with team members and sponsors -- beyond what is offered in the engineering faculty."

Radziszewski pointed out that when these students enter the work force they will need to do exactly what they are doing now to make the car work -- mechanical engineers collaborating with electrical engineers to make a better product.

Although the car itself is an engineering marvel in many ways -- it is the lightest solar car in the world -- it is the people who make it possible.

Team leader Matthew Smith, a research engineer with the ambulatory robotics lab of the Centre for Intelligent Machines, explained that the real challenge team iSun faces is less in making the car work, than in making the team work. Smith pointed out that McGill's solar car teams have had some disheartening experiences over the last few years -- Team Northern Sun (iSun's precursor) didn't qualify for one race because of "catastrophic wheel failure" and Team iSun didn't qualify for a race last year due to a fire caused by an electrical short. No one was hurt in either case, but it was frustrating. As team leader, Smith has tried to ensure that the types of mistakes that led to those disasters don't happen again.

"Basically we had to transform ourselves from a solar car building team to a solar car racing team," he said.

The team wants to enter the American Solar Challenge that occurs in July. Dozens of solar powered cars in various classes will travel from Chicago to California.

Bigger still is the World Solar Challenge in October. The top teams in the world will cross 3000 km of Australia's desolate interior, from Darwin to Adelaide. Smith said that the team expects to do well in both races -- he predicts top ten finishes in both.

Although the team is happy to take on anyone who wants to help out, the vast majority of the students who make up the team are in engineering. And true to their calling, most want to tinker on the car in some way. But the team is so much more than that.

Emilie Fortier became friends with many of the iSun members last year, and hitched along on a meet-and-greet with sponsors in Toronto over the summer. Since then, she has become the de facto human resources and public relations manager. Her job is to get the car to events like St. Jerome and the Montreal auto show. Right now she is coordinating with McGill to have presenters for McGill's open house.

The benefits of these events are many.

"We get lots of media visibility, and sponsoring companies are happy to see that. Plus we can go to other companies and tell them 'Look, you could have been there,'" she said.

It helps for recruitment, too.

"It builds a sense of team -- if you see yourself on television, you're going to be more motivated."

As one of the few women involved, Fortier occupies a special place on the team. She concedes she does sometimes get razzed by her fellows, but in some respects is listened to more. And one upcoming initiative of hers may help balance the testosterone in future years.

"We're doing some visits to local high schools -- one of these is an all-girls school. I have a contact there who said it would be good for us to come to motivate them," she said, adding with a laugh "I still don't know what I'm going to tell them!"

Will Sacks is the iSun's "rainmaker." He acts as the chief fundraiser. To run the car for a racing season -- paying for parts, maintenance, testing, testing facilities, travel, shipping, and the myriad other costs requires a budget of roughly $270,000. Much of that is offset by "in-kind" donations of materials and facilities, but cash flow remains a challenge.

There is an art to getting people to give you stuff, and as a mechanical engineering student, Sacks had little idea what he was getting into.

"In the beginning I was calling anyone -- even people who made pipes," he said.

His pitch has refined a lot over the past year. He focuses on companies, foundations and individuals that stand to benefit from an association with Team iSun. The team's single biggest sponsor is ICP (Innovative Consumer Products) who donated the solar cells that make the car go. In return for their largesse, the company occasionally uses the car for promotional purposes. Other major sponsors are Bombardier and the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation.

It isn't every school organization that will get you into the boardrooms of Bombardier, but Sacks has developed a pretty good instinct for the job: "You call people up and tell them 'we're from McGill and we have a solar powered racing car,' and they'll say 'really? How fast does it go?' and then you know they're going to give you something," he said with a grin.

In the end, despite the human resources and financial issues, the car is an engineering project. Phil Weicker, currently pursuing his master's in electrical engineering, is in charge of the car's electrical systems.

He explained that although certain components come off the shelf, others are built up from scratch by the team, such as the iSun battery pack.

"We designed the circuit boards, the enclosure, the high voltage system. You have the motor, the solar array, and the battery pack. You have to be able to shut it all off if something goes wrong -- you need to monitor the voltage and temperature of the batteries; you need to know current going in, current going out; and ideally you want to have all of this with as little input from the driver as possible," he said.

The McGill system is far more sophisticated than many other cars in the solar car racing circuit, according to Weicker.

"I think a lot of people underestimate how dangerous these can be -- especially with lithium ion battery chemistry, which stores a tremendous amount of energy, but if you mishandle it lets it all out at once. Basically you have a bomb," he said, adding that their unit proved its worth when it shut down the car when a fire broke out on board.

"Ours sets the example of where the bar should be."

The battery pack isn't their only secret weapon. After the showcase in the St. Jerome hockey arena closed down, the team members who made the trip loaded the car into the team trailer. They then pulled out the unoffical iSun cannon -- a long plastic pipe into which they stuffed a ball. They then filled the bulge at one end with propane and lit it.

Boom! The ball sails into the sky. And so they leave St. Jerome with a bang.

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