MIT Prepares 90 MPH Solar Racing Car

MIT's newest solar race car might look like a table with a hump, but don't laugh at it. It'll do 90 mph and has technology that we may see in the hybrids and EVs that we'll soon be driving.

The university's Solar Electric Vehicle Team, the first team of its type in America, unveiled the $243,000 carbon-fiber racer called Eleanor and is preparing the car for its inaugural race later this year.

"It drives beautifully," said George Hansel, a physics major and a team member. "It's fun to drive and quite a spectacle."

Eleanor will take part in the tenth World Solar Challenge, a seven-day race across nearly 2,000 miles of Australian outback.

MIT's solar team participated in its first race in 1987, and Eleanor is the 10th car it has entered in the competition. The team took six months to design the body before fine-tuning it in Ford Motor Company's wind tunnel. The result is a very low drag coefficient of 0.11, making Eleanor more aerodynamic than aToyota Prius, the EV1 or even the Aptera 2e electric car.

Aerodynamic efficiency is of the utmost importance in improving battery range, especially when the batteries are charged by the sun. Eleanor carries 580 silicon solar battery cells.

They cover over six square yards (about 64.5 square feet) and generate 1,200 watts — enough to power a hair dryer or a pair of desktop computers. The electric is stored in a 6-kilowatt-hour Genasun battery pack containing 693 lithium-ion cells. The battery weighs about 71 pounds and provides enough range, even without sunlight, to drive the car from Boston to New York. Propulsion is achieved by a 10-horsepower hub-mounted motor driving the lone rear wheel. "A three-wheel vehicle simplifies suspension design," Hansel said.

The car is packaged in a chrome-moly steel frame wrapped in carbon-fiber-and-Kevlar bodywork. The car weighs just under 500 pounds including the solar cells.

Racing across Australia requires a tremendous amount of strategy, with careful calculation of everything from road conditions and terrain to the weather forecast. Maximizing efficiency and range are the main functions.

"You've got to go 2,000 miles, you've got specific hours you can drive and you've got a limited amount of energy in the battery," said Spencer Quong, the Union of Concerned Scientists expert.

That's not to say Eleanor can't move. She'll run all day at 55 mph, and although no one's has floored it yet, Hansel says theoretically Eleanor can drive at 90 mph. Not that anyone will take her to the max. With their stiff suspensions and hollow bodies, solar race cars generally resonate like drums at high speeds, creating a a terrible noise for the driver.

"Our previous car, Tesseract, was very fast. It was taken up to 85 mph before the driver got terrified," he said. "You reach the driver limit before you reach the motor limit."

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