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Updated 11:50 AM October 25, 2007




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Mirror technology propels 2007 Solar Car team

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See the solar car team at work>
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Mirrors hold the hopes of the 2007 U-M Solar Car Team. The storied student organization with more than 100 members has a potentially game-changing car design for the upcoming Panasonic World Solar Challenge, an 1,800-mile race across Australia that began
Oct. 21.
Students perform maintenance on the solar car body in Australia during a mock race while the solar cells and the concentrator mirrors on the car's top soak in the sun. The Panasonic World Solar Challenge runs 1,800 miles through the Australian outback. The first cars are expected to cross the finish line on Thursday, Oct. 25. (Photos courtesy U-M Solar Car Team)
Students in Australia lift the top of Continuum, the 2007 U-M solar car, during a practice race just as they must do every six hours when they change drivers during the race. The top of the car is secured with yellow tape similar to electrical tape.

Continuum, the name they've given this car, is outfitted with U-shaped mirrors that intensify the sunlight, squeezing more energy out of every ray.

"We're using the best solar technology on the face of the planet," says Brian Ignaut, race manager and a senior engineering major.

The team's faculty adviser concurs.

"This is the first time this technology has been applied to a vehicle and it's truly a breakthrough. It has the potential to revolutionize solar car technology," says Robert Culver, faculty advisor and industry co-director of the Tauber Institute for Global Operations.

A calculated risk

The solar concentrator system was designed and built by students. It's the team's answer to new rules by race officials seeking to slow the event by limiting the size of the solar array. The cars usually average between 50 and 60 mph during the race, Ignaut says, but they're capable of closing in on 90 mph.

Most of Continuum is covered with regular solar cells that look like rows of photograph negatives. But the section behind the driver's seat is lined with 1/2-inch-wide solar panel strips that hover over scalloping mirrors.

It's a calculated risk. But one the students deemed necessary.

The team, which has won the North American Solar Challenge four times, has finished third in the World Solar Challenge three times.

"We came out for 2007 to improve that performance," Ignaut says. "We knew that we had to really push the envelope to be able to compete at the highest level."

Hours, time, dedication

Twenty-five students are in Australia participating in the race that's expected to last five to seven days. Many of them already have been there for weeks, driving the route, looking for potential problem spots and practicing. During the race, drivers take turns in six-hour shifts. For the first time this year, drivers will sit, instead of recline, in the vehicle.

The solar car team is one of the largest student organizations on campus, including students from the College of Engineering, LSA, the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, the School of Art & Design and the School of Education.

No matter when they cross the finish line in Australia, the students say being part of the team teaches them things a class cannot.

"The Solar Car Team is something that encompasses your whole life. It's a student project, but it's a whole lot more. The hours, the time, the dedication required are so much greater than anything else I've ever experienced. It's like working in a mini-corporation," says Steve Hechtman, a junior electrical engineering major and solar car driver.

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