Hot shots: CFCC students build cars powered by the sun

CFCC solar powered cars

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Anyone who drives a vehicle has probably dreaded getting into their car after it has been parked for hours under the sun.

What if that energy was converted into actually powering the vehicle?

Students in the mechanical engineering program at Cape Fear Community College have answered that question this semester by building four solar powered cars. While they're a long way from being street legal or super fast, the cars — built by the students pretty much from scratch — all function on power gathered from sunlight through solar panels attached to their futuristic looking frames.

Black, square solar panels attached to the top of the cars' bodies provide power to the batteries. (Source: WECT)
Black, square solar panels attached to the top of the cars' bodies provide power to the batteries. (Source: WECT)

“They did great,” Daniel Hendrickson, CFCC’s mechanical engineering program director, said of his students’ efforts. "I’m ecstatic that we have four solar vehicles, and that they’re all running great. ... The students have learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot.

"We kind of bit off more than we could chew with this one. We ended up in here on some days that were not school days working on them. The students volunteered to come in and work on them. They're running as great as I hoped they would, and they look as good as I hoped they would."

Research for this project began in the fall, and students began building the cars in January. They were finished in time to participate in the Azalea Festival Parade on April 6.

Using money from a grant given to CFCC, each car — which tops out at 20-25 miles per hour — cost around $5,000-6,000 to build.

Hendrickson said street legal solar powered cars in Australia can go 60-70 mph but they come with a $500,000 price tag.

“We started looking at that and thought, ‘Hey, how could we do that but not spend that kind of money?’” Hendrickson said. “We just sized everything down and put limited energy on them.”

A device called a maximum power point tracker changes energy from the sun into energy that runs the car's battery. Speed is controlled through a handheld accelerator, and the driver can see how fast they're going on a digital monitor mounted inside the car.

There is a standard brake pedal, emergency brake, seat belt and fire extinguisher, and drivers — including this reporter — wore helmets while doing laps on the CFCC campus Thursday. The outer body of the car is made of dense foam attached to a metal chassis.

Driving a car you built with your own hands might seem sketchy to the layperson but Hendrickson's students were eager to get behind the wheel after putting in so many hours during the construction phase.

"There definitely were some long days," student Ben Watson said. "We did a lot of testing before we actually got in the car so we were pretty confident when we sat down and took it for a lap. It was very rewarding."

On Tuesday at 11 a.m., the students will compete in the CFCC Solar Car Challenge. Students will have three hours to complete as many laps as possible, taking two 30-minute breaks to charge their batteries using only solar energy.

The event was originally scheduled for Sunday but there is a good chance of rain and almost a 100 percent chance of cloud cover that day.

“On a cloudy day, you’re in trouble but if you have a big enough battery to compensate for that, you can get a lot of energy out of solar,” Hendrickson said. “It always irritates me when I see cars in a parking lot sitting out there in the sun. Why don’t they have solar panels on them? They could be charging something.”

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