By Chris Lee, Senior writer, 17, Walnut HS
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Chris Lee, 17, waits to start racing his team’s solar car at the 2006 Dell-Winston Solar Car Challenge.

I’m an alternative energy and environmental geek. My closet is filled with stacks of magazines, such as Popular Science, Scientific American and Discover (I love the stories on global warming), and I have a folder full of Los Angeles Times articles about energy consumption. One of my treasured books is an autographed copy of Out of Gas by David Goodstein, a professor at Cal Tech, who gave a talk on energy I attended when I was 13.

All this reading showed me that our rampant use of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and oil) is causing permanent environmental destruction that will lead to another problem—we’re going to run out of coal, natural gas and oil someday. My family has recycled for years, but I wanted to make more of an impact.

So I joined my school’s solar car team toward the end of my freshman year. We were preparing for the Dell-Winston School Solar Car Challenge, a national solar car race for high school students held at the Texas Motor Speedway, which hosts NASCAR races. Although Dell did not offer any prize money, the bragging rights, trophy and opportunity to work on a functioning solar car were more than enough motivation.

Solar cars could be the next generation of super-efficient, non-polluting cars. They weigh less than regular cars and use only the sun to propel them without emitting any pollution. Polluted air is nearly impossible to clean up and is a cause of global warming. The way solar cars work is sunlight hits the solar panels (which look like flat, reflective plates), and the cells on the panels convert the sun’s energy into electricity. That electricity powers the car’s motor or is stored in the batteries for use later.

Usually, only colleges and professional teams participate in this competitive hobby because it requires advanced engineering and a big budget. Stanford’s solar car, Solstice, is sleeker than a Ferrari and has raced at 75 miles per hour down Australian highways. But such an aerodynamic beauty demanded thousands of hours of work and costs nearly $500,000. Even with much, much smaller budgets, fewer than 15 high school teams across the nation compete in the Dell-Winston Solar Car Challenge, because only a few can build a solar car.

Beginning my sophomore year, we had nine months to design and build a car that could race more than 500 miles (roughly the distance from San Diego to San Francisco). The hardest part was that solar cars don’t come with a set of instructions or any pre-made pieces. We needed to design it, find materials and decide how to actually put the components together.
We spent Saturdays in Mr. Smith’s car shop. His son, Colin, headed the team because he had experience from the year before. We met at 10 a.m. and worked for five hours. Even though our team had about 150 members on its e-mail list, about eight people (it usually varied) showed up every week because we weren’t strict about attendance. Though not everyone was as passionate about alternative energies as I was, we each had an inner science geek and were excited to engineer a car.

Building a car was harder than we thought

Colin and I wanted to build a car with a fiberglass body because it’s way lighter than metal, and lighter cars need less power to move. But we realized that we didn’t have the experience or budget. So that meant re-using the car the team used the previous year. With the help of Colin’s dad, who had experience modifying cars as a hobby, we were able to improve the old solar car. We would definitely have been lost without the help of mentors, like Colin’s dad.

We changed some of the parts, gutted some of the heavier metals and replaced them with a lighter plastic material, dropping about 200 pounds of weight. We had placed second the year before and hoped to win this time.
We bought parts from small specialty stores that also sold parts for small aircraft and off-road vehicles. If we were able to experiment with commonplace supplies, I wondered what the scientists and engineers at Ford and GM were doing with all their top-notch research facilities and technologies.

The next five months were brutal since work was slow whenever school was in session. One Saturday was welding the frame; the next was configuring the suspension; then it was attaching a steering wheel and system. This wasn’t physically hard, but it was complicated. Each Saturday we’d schedule a specific task, but then fail to complete it because it was too complicated and we weren’t organized enough. Experts at local hobby shops gave us advice, and we searched the Internet for help. By March we had wanted the suspension installed, but we didn’t even have the body done yet. And the race was in July. Only after the May AP tests did we dramatically pick up the pace by meeting three to four times a week. Eventually, commercial solar panels roofed the top, suspension steadied the car, and six 12V car batteries flanked the sides. Next, we snaked wiring through the body of the car to connect all the parts to power the motor.

After thousands of collective hours of tinkering we were not racing against other solar cars yet, but we were racing against time—the day before we were to leave for the race, the car still wouldn’t run. We hunched over the 50 wires in the battery box because we suspected that the electricity wasn’t flowing properly. We all felt helpless.

“Did you check the wiring?” Mr. Smith asked.

“What do you even mean by check? Do you want me to pull everything out!” responded a frustrated Colin.

“How about you just follow the wires?” suggested David, another team member who was just as flustered.

“Do we even know that the problem is the wiring? Did you check the fuse?” asked Mr. Smith.

I ignored everyone while I tried to concentrate on solving the problem.
Out of desperation we called for help. William, a past mentor for the solar car team and an electrical engineer who assisted us from time to time, came and looked at our problem and suggested replacing a fuse. That experience made me realize the importance of listening to others’ suggestions no matter how focused or frustrated I was. We replaced the fuse just before we left for the race, which left no time for a test run. We didn’t even know if the car would work.

When we arrived all the teams were as excited as us. Teams with Southern drawls thought our “accents” were funny, and everybody had techy discussions about how they built their solar cars. I loved the atmosphere. Everyone was passionate about renewable energies and had an understanding of the politics, economics and science behind these technologies. We were a young group who wanted to, and did, make a difference.

Would our car start?

All the teams left their cars out in the sun the day before the race to charge the batteries. We weren’t sure if replacing the fuse actually fixed our problem. With a turn of a key, the display lighted up, and the car jolted forward with a tap on the pedal. We knew it worked.

The race was divided into seven two-and-a-half-hour legs on the NASCAR track. Each car crawled out of pit row in one-minute intervals, accelerating gradually to conserve energy until it was our turn to start. We successfully completed two laps within the first 10 minutes.

Photo courtesy of the Dell-Winston School Solar Car Challenge

I volunteered for the second leg of the race. I had just gotten my license and was ready to use it. As I stepped into the box frame of the car, Colin’s dad handed me a backpack filled with Gatorade and ice to prevent dehydration. It can easily reach temperatures of more than 130 degrees Fahrenheit on the track. Ten minutes into the race, I didn’t want to be in there anymore because the ice had melted, and for the rest of the leg I was forced to drink the warm, watered-down Gatorade.

Solar car racing at the high school level isn’t nearly as exciting as a high-speed NASCAR race, but rather it’s a low-speed race of endurance. As more cars went past us, we knew that we weren’t going to finish first. But I was happy because we had built a car that worked. By 2 p.m., I lost track of the number of laps around the track. The breeze flowing through the window felt so gentle that it seemed I could walk faster than the car could move. And I lost count of the number of times the orange St. Thomas High School car whirred past me. I didn’t mind getting lapped; I was just counting the minutes until I could get out of the car.

We placed sixth and traveled 269 miles on the track, way behind the 599 miles driven by St. Thomas High from Minnesota. We didn’t do as well as the previous year because every other team raced a newly designed car while we merely tried to improve our old one. We weren’t the best, but it was really cool running a zero-emission solar car on a NASCAR track. In a normal race, fuel is consumed so quickly that speedsters travel four miles to the gallon. I wonder how much they spend on gas because our car ran for free—our car soaked up the sun.

Going green was more important than winning

With a budget of roughly $20,000 we managed to build a solar car, paid for with funds from our city, donations from suppliers such as Tire Pros, and fundraising. Doing something really cool environmentally—beyond just recycling—convinced me that I could do more, even as a high school student.

A couple months later Lexus asked us to participate in a commercial near Death Valley. In the commercial, the new Lexus hybrid GS 450h zigzagged past a line of solar cars as if to suggest that the Lexus was the new generation of green, luxury vehicles. Our car, the Tanque del Sol, was not too shabby after all.

Sadly, I could not devote as much time to the solar car team this year because I’ve been doing work on another alternative fuel source for vehicles. Since my sophomore year, I’ve been working for Cal Tech professor Sossina Haile researching fuel cells. They can harness the energy during the chemical reaction of hydrogen fuel and oxygen and convert it into electricity. Basically, fuel cells may be the next generation of devices that can replace car engines and reduce our reliance on oil. They generate only water as a byproduct and emit no ozone-depleting carbon dioxide or smog-causing nitrogen oxides. Though this research (staring at screens of numbers) isn’t as exciting as building a solar car, it’s just as important to me.

Our generation will explore the new frontiers of alternative energies. And although neither solar cars or fuel cells are practical yet, thousands of scientists and engineers are working hard to attack our future problems with solutions that most of us will take for granted.

I feel like these experiences have become a springboard for me to do more. After college, I want to keep trying to improve our environment. I believe if teens follow their passions, they’ll have opportunities to help, too.

Other stories by this writer:

What’s for dinner? One crazy and fun evening, Chris, 16, taught his friends to cook. (November – December 2006)

A cool medical job. As a 23-year-old junior pathologist’s assistant, Jerry’s work is critical in helping doctors make the right diagnosis. (November – December 2006)

Downloading dilemma. Chris, 16, thinks record companies can make money and give teens free music. (May – June 2006)