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After nearly two decades of inactivity, the Solar Car Team at the University of Virginia is nearing a return to the racetrack.
“Just getting the car on the track is a major achievement,” said Arslan Aziz, a third-year biomedical engineering student who heads the team. “That will be credible evidence that we have to be taken seriously.”
The UVa team is finishing work on a solar car that will be entered in the 2018 Formula Sun Grand Prix. The solar “rayce,” held at Motorsport Park Hastings in Nebraska, will have teams from American and Canadian universities compete to finish the most laps around the 2.14-mile racetrack over three days of racing.
At last year’s Grand Prix, the winning car from the University of California-Berkeley completed 228 laps on the Circuit of the Americas racetrack in Austin, Texas.
“We are modest with our expectations,” said Raghav Savara, the UVa team’s operations officer. “We see this as part of a learning curve, and not as much about trying to get a place on the podium.”
The Solar Car Team at UVa dates back to the 1990s, but it became dormant soon after its second national competition in 2001.
Roger Voisinet, a Charlottesville real estate broker and solar energy consultant, was an advisor to the Solar Car Team in its early years.
“The disbanding of the team probably reflected a national lack of interest in the solar industry at the time,” he said.
A small group of UVa undergraduates revived the team in 2014. The organization has since grown to include more than 30 volunteer members spread across four project teams.
“The organization has been expanding, and has grown more rich to support everyone’s interests and our needs,” Savara said.
Three of the organization’s project teams focus on the engineering and production of the car, while a fourth handles its business operations.
“We’re getting people from all these different backgrounds excited about this project,” said Malcolm Miller, a second-year student who oversees electrical work on the car. “There are so many pieces that play into it.”
The team has assembled its new car in workshops across Grounds. Most of the production has taken place at the Observatory Mountain Engineering Research Facility — formerly the site of the university’s nuclear reactor.
The Solar Car Team is engaging corporate sponsors and private donors to raise $130,000 to pay for the car and bring it to competitions.
Although the car is still under production, the team unveiled its carbon fiber chassis and other components Wednesday on the Downtown Mall while hosting a fundraiser at the Old Metropolitan Hall.
“We are excited to iterate on this car,” said Aziz. “We don’t want this to be a one-and-done project.”
Devin Welch, co-founder and vice president of business development at Sun Tribe Solar, gave the keynote address at the fundraiser. Sun Tribe has signed on as a sponsor of the Solar Car Team.
“The transition to renewable energy is absolutely unstoppable and inevitable,” Welch said. “These students are taking all of these different technologies and putting them together in an application that, while it’s prototypical, is driving that conversation forward in a very meaningful way.”
Sandy Reisky, co-founder and chairman of Apex Clean Energy, said the experiential learning opportunities provided by the Solar Car Team would help to develop the talent pipeline between UVa and Charlottesville’s renewable energy companies.
“Renewable energy is really growing in Charlottesville,” Reisky said. “All the ingenuity and innovation we see in the field is on display in this solar car.”