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New Mexico State University students help build solar car for competition

Gentlemen, start your engines!

Senior electrical engineering students Jose Martinez, left, and Sean Marquez, right, look over the model of the solar car they are helping to build. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Mexico College and University Solar Car Consortium, composed of students from New Mexico State University and the University of New Mexico, is building a solar car to race in the 2003 American Solar Challenge July 13-23.

For 10 days, the consortium, which calls itself the SunBurn Racing Team, plans to race a car down historic Route 66 -- more than 2,000 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles.

"Our goal is not to win, but to finish. If we finish, we have done a great job," said Andrew Rosenthal, a program manager for the Southwest Technology Development Institute (SWTDI) at NMSU.

For the past few years, the solar car has been a work in progress. Students from different disciplines and backgrounds have been involved in the design, construction, marketing and fund-raising of the car. Mentors from Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque and SWTDI at NMSU have been helping the students through the process.

"The purpose of the race is really to have student teams and other teams experience the satisfaction of designing a challenging engineering project, and ultimately the enjoyment of the race is the satisfaction of knowing you've overcome a really tough challenge," Rosenthal said.

The car will be mounted with solar arrays that will provide approximately 1,500 watts of power, slightly less energy than it takes to run a vacuum cleaner. This is enough to power the solar car at a speed of more than 40 miles per hour with full sun. Batteries will be used to store enough energy to run the car for approximately 100 miles without using the array.

"When you design a solar car you have certain requirements," Rosenthal said. "You want it to be lightweight, aerodynamic and you want to have the most efficient solar array mounted on it that you can build. You want it to be electrically efficient and you want to be able to build it in such a way that it can be maintained over a cross country race."

During the race, teams will switch drivers every few hours.

"A perfect driver would be a jockey or somebody small," he said, then laughed. "The driver has to undergo pretty harsh conditions. It gets very hot and you don't get a lot of ventilation in there."

Sean Marquez, a senior electrical engineering major, said the car will not be equipped with air conditioning.

"We are trying to use the power to drive the vehicle," he said.

The group has made tremendous progress, though funds are a bit scarce.

Marquez and Jose Martinez, co-project leaders who got involved with the car through the New Mexico Alliance for Minority Participation (AMP) program, said they are both optimistic about their chances to participate in this year's race.

"The motor itself is $15,000 and the space grade solar cells, that were donated by EMCORE, normally run hundreds of thousands of dollars," Marquez said. "(But) I think if we can get enough people and participation from the community and other businesses we should be just fine."

"Everyone associated with this project knows that if we don't make it for this race, then we just keep going and we'll be that much more prepared for the next one (in 2005)," Rosenthal said.

Organizers of the race expect the first solar cars to enter New Mexico early Tuesday, July 17, stopping at Tucumcari at about noon. All entries will be on the UNM campus by Saturday evening July 19. They will leave "The Pit" between 9 and 10 a.m. Sunday, July 20, heading west towards Gallup.

To make a donation contact the Southwest Technology Development Institute at NMSU, (505) 646-2441. Donations are tax-deductible and donors will receive recognition.