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Michigan's Infinium Solar Car 2009

Credits: ©2009 Sally Younger/Popular Science

By Sally Younger in Popular Science, June 2009 --

In the shadow of the state’s struggling automakers, the University of Michigan solar engineering team—one of the most advanced in the country--unveiled its newest solar-powered race car, Infinium. With the $1 million racer they hope to vanquish the competition at the World Solar Challenge, a six-day 1,800 mile sprint across Australia using only the southern hemisphere sunlight. Needless to say, it looks fast. At 600 lbs, and as aerodynamic as a Corvette, Infinium’s exceptionally lightweight frame is spun from carbon fiber composite. The car’s innards, like the suspension, are aluminum or titanium. “There is hardly any steel in the car,” says Michigan team manager Steven Hechtman.


Michigan Solar Car 2009 in Grass

The Infinium is UM's solar car for 2009. ©2009 University of Michigan

More spacecraft than automobile, Infinium is plastered in black photovoltaic strips capable of drinking sunlight at rates rivaling the solar cells found on spacecraft. A specially-designed electric motor encased in one of the car’s three wheels peaks at 98 percent efficiency. The 50 lb lithium battery is 1/3 the size of the Chevy Volt’s and supplies the car for up to 200 miles without a drop of sunny fuel.

Technological leaps made in programs like Michigan’s spur eventual advancements in car manufacturing, according to Hechtman. Skilled alumni acquire cutting-edge knowledge they can bring to private industry, and sponsors like Ford keep an eye on progress.

“We’ve been using lithium batteries for 10 years,” says Hechtman, “but they are only now about to be used in production vehicles.”

The 5-time North American winners have placed third several times at the World Solar Challenge and with Infinium they seek redemption. An early pileup derailed their hopes at the last world event.

From the University:
The University of Michigan Solar Car Team is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It is one of the most successful solar car teams in North America, having won the North American Solar Challenge (NASC) five times. The team has also placed third in the World Solar Challenge (WSC) three times. Four of its former vehicles are on display in museums in the United States, including the Henry Ford Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and the Boston Museum of Science.

Founded in 1989, the Solar Car Team is one of the largest and most successful student projects at the University. The team has built nine solar cars and competed in 12 major races.

Although it draws heavily on undergraduate students from the College of Engineering, students from any academic discipline or year of study are allowed to join the team. Students have also come from the College of LS&A, the Ross School of Business, and the School of Art & Design.

In 1990, the team's first car, Sunrunner, finished in first place in the inaugural GM Sunrayce USA. The second generation team built its car, Maize & Blue, and competed in Sunrayce 93 (the predecessor to the North American Solar Challenge) finishing in first and in the World Solar Challenge finishing in 11th place.

After 1993's races, all projects have run on a 2-year cycle. During those two years, the team is typically anywhere from 100 to 200 (or more) students. The vast majority of these students volunteer their time freely, although in the past a small percentage opt to receive credit via the University's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (or UROP).

A race crew of approximately 20 students is selected to race the vehicle in competition. These students' function is similar to that of a pit crew in professional auto racing.

The University of Michigan Solar Car Team is an entirely student-run organization whose purpose is to design, finance, build, and race a solar-powered vehicle in competitions around North America and the world. We are dedicated to the development of our members as teammates, educators, and leaders, and to the education of our community on the potentials of alternative energy technology.

Students who volunteer for the Solar Car Team are typically undergraduates who come from a wide range of academic disciplines, including majors within the College of Engineering, the Ross School of Business, and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Each project operates on a two-year project cycle and sees as many as 200 volunteer students participating on the team.



Global Green Challenge (Australia)

Solar Car Team University of Michigan (USA)

World Solar Challenge