Blue Sky Solar Racing

The B7 car competing in the 2013 World Solar Challenge. (via flickr.com/photos/blueskysolar)
The B7 car competing in the 2013 World Solar Challenge. (via flickr.com/photos/blueskysolar)

I first saw one of Blue Sky Solar Racing’s cars at Science Rendezvous, an all-ages event designed to generate interest in science. The sleek solar panel-covered creation glided down the road, chased by a group of excited children. While the students and parents standing around did not join in the chase, they were clearly just as excited and fascinated by the sun-powered car. Let’s face it, solar racing is awesome!

Blue Sky Solar Racing has existed at U of T for 18 years, during which they have built seven different cars.

b7car
The bottom half of B7. There’s a little stuffed koala clinging to the cockpit!

Their main goal is to compete in the World Solar Challenge in Australia every two years. It’s an impressive feat: six days of driving from 8 am to 5 pm from the north to south end of the continent, recharging the car’s battery with the sun each morning. They drive on actual roads (alongside real cars!) so have to deal with traffic, weather and road conditions. It’s a lot to think about for a team of 20 student scientists, but they’re good at it; in 2013, Blue Sky came eighth out of 40 cars.

When they aren’t in Australia, the full 120-person Blue Sky team is busy designing, building and teaching people about solar cars. Last week, I had the chance to tour their workshop in the Engineering Annex building. The B7 car, in two separate top and bottom parts, took up most of the space, though there were tools and materials scattered all over the room.

b7carunderside
The underside of the top half of B7.

They are currently in the process of designing their next car, to be raced in 2015. The driver will be off to one side, in line with the wheels instead of in the centre like a traditional vehicle. This should make the car more aerodynamic, and hopefully the new car will end up weighing less than the B7’s 250 pounds (which is already less than a quarter of the weight of a regular car!).

Managing director Zhe Gong’s favourite part of being involved with Blue Sky is “watching other people and himself become better engineers and professionals” (though going to Australia is a nice perk!). Blue Sky is an incredible learning experience for everyone involved – it’s a chance to work on a multi-disciplinary and entrepreneurial project while still an undergrad.

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Some design ideas taking form. Note the picture of the thumbs-up guy in the top left corner!

Technical skills are certainly necessary to design and build a solar car from scratch, though there is a diverse range of students on the team. The business team is responsible for forming partnerships with industry and alumni to get materials and consultations, as well as recruiting for the team and promoting sustainable transportation to the community at large. Gong estimates that 10 per cent of the team does not have an engineering background. They even once had a director who was a philosophy student!

Keep an eye out for Orientation Sessions in September, though this is a club where entrepreneurial students who like to learn on their own will excel.

As a reminder that solar racing is an exciting thing to learn about, a group of high school students from the DEEP summer academy streamed in for a tour as I was leaving, full of questions about different parts of the car. Clearly Blue Sky gets people excited about science!

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