Racers, Start Your Solar Engines!

This past weekend, my family and I went away to a camp in Pennsylvania for a retreat devoted to discussing green and environmental issues. We discussed with our kids what we can do individually to reduce our carbon imprint. I was heartened to hear that some of the other parents have similar issues with their kids not turning off the lights. But what really got the kids’ attention was a solar car race.

Ken Stadlin gives a solar demonstration

Ken Stadlin gives a solar demonstration

Ken Stadlin of Kenergy Solar in Maryland came up to talk solar and give the kids a solar run for their money.  Ken was there to press the kids to participate in the Junior Solar Sprint Car Competition organized by the US Department of Energy. This outstanding program challenges kids from all over the country to work together and build solar cars. Sounds dull—no chance! The kids love it but of course they need parents and teachers to help organize these events. And that is where Ken comes in.  Ken wants to get kids and their parents from around the region more involved in the Junior Solar Sprints.

The kids I am sure politely listened to Ken’s talk but what they really wanted to see was the solar panel that Ken brought with him. How does this thing produce electricity, they all wondered? They mobbed Ken for a feel of the solar panel that we had with us. It still didn’t quite sink in until the solar car race—now that is a demonstration of solar generated electricity. No batteries required!

Kids mob Ken Stadlin's solar panel

Kids mob Ken Stadlin's solar panel

These Junior Solar Sprints motivate kids to build a model solar car and learn not only about solar energy, but also about design considerations, aerodynamics, gear ratio, transmissions, among other engineering issues. And you thought it looked so easy. The solar panel on these solar cars is actually the easiest part of the equation.  The small solar module on the cars is the equivalent to about 2 double AA batteries. The only things that must meet the specifications are the motor and solar panel—the rest is left to the kids’ imagination and ingenuity.

We did not of course have time to have an “official” race, which is held on a racecourse of 20 meters over level terrain. We had other solar model cars that we could assemble relatively quickly. My son and I put together what we named the “Turtle”—not known for its quick pace, but it is big and methodical. Take a look at the Turtle and a photograph of a solar car that meets the NJSS standards—which basically means that the solar panel is of a standard size and the motor is standard. The Turtle has a very small solar panel but it moves in a deliberate way, almost like the Mars Rover.

The Turtle is on the left. An official solar car is on the right. See the difference?

The Turtle is on the left. An official solar car is on the right. See the difference?

We put the Turtle against two other competitors, one which was named the Cheetah—and for good reason. It was sleek and the solar panel on the Cheeta occupied almost its entire chassis. We had one other entrant for the race, a red racing car that seemed to do much better when its wheels were not in contact with the pavement.  This description should give you the proper idea that the Cheetah was unstoppable. The kids took home their newly assembled solar cars and Ken hopes that they will bring back into their homes a better understanding of solar energy and get their parents and teachers involved in the National Junior Solar Sprint.  For more information on the Junior Solar Sprint Car Competitions, go to the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory page on which you can also find the regional junior solar sprint car competition sites in your area.

Solar Car Race: Cheetah is on the left

Solar Car Race: Cheetah is on the left

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One Response to “Racers, Start Your Solar Engines!”

  1. Kristine says:

    Introducing solar/renewable energy to the younger generations is a good key for the future. With all the solar technology advancements happening over the years, who knows what the younger generations can do for our future :)

    Kristine