Solar car races put the fun in FiO

Nov. 1, 2009
SAN JOSE, CA--I don’t know about you, but I seldom describe my attendance at trade shows as “fun,” unless I’m seeing old friends or taking a break sightseeing away from the convention center.

SAN JOSE, CA--I don’t know about you, but I seldom describe my attendance at trade shows as “fun,” unless I’m seeing old friends or taking a break sightseeing away from the convention center. But things were very different at this year’s Frontiers in Optics (FiO) conference, OSA’s Annual Meeting: A large assembled crowd cheered and jeered as small solar-powered motor cars sped (and twirled) their way towards the finish line, propelled forward by the energy from a 500 W lamp on wheels.

While many of the designs were similar and used the basic kit components of a frame, wheels, electric motor, and solar photovoltaic (PV) cell provided to each of the student teams, some entries in the 1st International OSA Student Chapter Solar Mini-Car Competition, as it was formally billed, stood out. Jean-Simon Corbeil from École Polytechnique de Montréal attempted to focus the lamp energy using a Fresnel zone plate precariously perched above the PV cell using rods and binder clips. Unfortunately, this particular vehicle would not budge on the first of its three runs (the best times were taken over the best of three runs to determine the winner in the “fastest” category). Another standout was the University of Tennessee with their three-wheeled car, designed for reduced weight. Unfortunately, three wheels did not end up steering very straight. The entrant from a group of Student Chapters, although it looked similar to other stock vehicles, made a curious show of circular twists and turns (and required assistance by being gently “kicked” back into the race to stay on track).

Sponsored by the OSA International Student Chapter, points were given for time to complete the race, originality, and aesthetics, with 5 points deducted for each “nudge” required to reach the finish line. The car from Georgia Institute of Technology in Lorraine, Metz, France won in the “fastest” category with a transit time of only 6.04 seconds to run the approximate 25 feet (some entries took as long as 41 seconds), and the University of Tennessee and ICONS-ICFO Organization and Network of Students teams won in the “aesthetic” and “original” categories. The prizes?: $250 for the talented competitors.

In addition to the three winners, cars were also entered by Team Columbia, the Brazilian Team (made up of two chapters), Cornell University, UniversitéÈ Laval, École Polytechnique de Montreal and University of Central Florida, CREOL. The preliminary races were held on Sunday, October 11th, with the final races held in the FiO exhibit hall (the Imperial Ballroom at the Fairmont hotel) on Tuesday, October 13th.

Just like the Solar Decathlon showcasing energy efficient homes (see www.laserfocusworld.com/articles/370163), OSA’s Solar Car Competition oozed inspiration. Perhaps these students will someday design energy efficient technologies to eliminate future energy crises.

It wasn’t clear who had more fun at the solar car races--the participating students, or the audience cheering them on. But it was clear that this type of fun was a welcome relief amid the typically serious academic venue that characterizes FiO. Look for the 2nd International OSA Student Chapter Solar Mini-Car Competition to take place at FiO 2010 in Rochester, NY. For more information, contact OSA Chapter and Student Services at [email protected].

--Gail Overton

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