Built by MIT students, solar car’s ready for Oz

Jeremy White

Its name is Eleanor and it means business.

Last week, a team of MIT students unveiled a solar car that they will put to the test in an upcoming race across Australia called the World Solar Challenge.

Around 100 people packed Building 13 in Kendall to catch a glimpse of the vehicle, christened Eleanor.

The car’s body stretches 16.5 feet, its sleek white surface honeycombed with black solar panels. A passenger bubble, positioned in the rear, rises a little more 5 feet above the ground and provides just enough room for a sole driver seated upright.

Eleanor is the latest model designed by the MIT Solar Electrical Vehicle Team, which has been exploring the potential of solar powered vehicles since 1985.

In an introductory speech, dean of undergraduate research Kim Vandiver referred to the car as “the latest in a long line of thoroughbred SEVT vehicles that have come from MIT students.”

The car cost about $300,000 to build, with the team receiving sponsorship from Infinesse, MIT, GM and Ford among others, according to senior and team member David Sanchez.

Eleanor can cruise at speeds of about 50-55 mph and tops out at around 85 mph, Sanchez said. In the absence of sunlight, he said the car could travel 250 miles with the help of a lithium ion battery pack.

The World Solar Challenge will enjoy its 10th anniversary with this year’s contest. Held from Oct. 25-31, the race traverses the some 3,000 kilometers between Darwin and Adelaide.

The World Solar Challenge’s Web site bills the competition as “the ultimate challenge in sustainable energy,” prodding contestants to “build a car capable of crossing the vast and imposing continent of Australia using only sunlight as fuel.”

Although Eleanor remained in the showroom on Friday, MIT sophomore and SEVT team captain Michael Roberts said that the team is planning to drive Eleanor in this year’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade in South Boston as part of spring road testing regimen.

Sanchez said the team’s goals are to “promote science and engineering and to encourage innovation in automobile technology for a new generation,” not to construct a marketable vehicle.

In pursuit of this goal, Roberts said that the team is planning to drive Eleanor cross-country, stopping at museums and schools along the way to promote awareness and talk about solar power.

“We seek to inspire people,” Roberts said.

Although the team has made strides with solar technology, Sanchez said electric cars represent a more realizable commercial opportunity.

“There’s not enough horsepower to satisfy our consumers,” he said. “We’re used to larger, more powerful vehicles, so I doubt we’re going to see a viable consumer solar car soon.”

Still, Roberts noted in his speech that the mechanisms that allow Eleanor to run are transferable to other types of innovative cars.

“While the technology for a solar car may not be practical, the underlying electrical system is similar to that being developed by major companies like GM or Ford,” he said.

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