Solar car team test drives car before taking off on their Alberta wide tour.
Aly Gulamhusein

Solar cars race across Alberta in preparation for Australia

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If you happen to see an ultramodern-looking vehicle making its way down Alberta's highways this week, it won't be stopping for gas. This car is powered completely by the energy of the sun.

Last Friday, the University of Calgary Solar Team took their Schulich Axiom solar car for an eight-day province-wide tour ­-- the Schulich Axiom Alberta Tour.

Thirty engineering students from the U of C built the car in fall 2010 and started on repairs and improvements Jan. 2011.

SAAT is being conducted partly in anticipation of the World Solar Challenge in October.

"[WSC] is basically a 3,000 km race across the Australian outback from Darwin to Adelaide over the period of a week," said WSC engineering manager and project co-chair Jeff Wickenheiser. "From the engineering side, [SAAT] is about testing the car and testing the drivers, as well making sure they are ready to handle basically anything so we can keep running as fast as possible."

Forty teams from around the world will compete in WSC.

Solar Team Faculty advisor Dr. Lynne Cowe-Falls explained the significance of having drivers ready to compete in the grueling Australian race.

"It's very different to be in the race than to try to plan for the race. That routine, that grind of getting up early every morning, having to charge the car, always being on your game-- getting used to that will prepare the team for what they will have in Australia."

"The big difference is that in Australia it's one straight road across the country and there's not a lot of little communities [on the way], so they're going to have to be a lot more resourceful," said Cowe-Falls.

Ensuring driver readiness for the Australian race isn't the only mandate of SAAT.

"[SAAT] has a couple different purposes," said Wickenheiser. "It's also a very educational tour. We have lots of plans to stop in at schools in rural Alberta."

Education and outreach is one mandate of the Solar Team.

"By going to all these elementary and junior high schools, we want to inspire in them an interest in science and technology, and of course the U of C," said Wickenheiser. "We're all about sustainability."

Increasing youth interest in sustainability through SAAT could also have implications for the future of the U of C.

"We would rather have the top students in the province go to the University of Calgary instead of the University of Alberta, so it's also a big recruitment thing," said Cowe-Falls. "We're in the energy capital of Canada, and we're promoting a sustainable technology. Taking the next step into the next realm of sustainability when we're in the heart of oil and gas is what we're about academically."

It's clear that one of the strengths of the Solar Team is its promotion of inter-faculty cooperation.

"The engineering team is responsible for building a functioning solar car, and the business team is essentially responsible for everything else, from budgeting [and] accounting [to] making sure that we're getting out in the community enough and that we have the right amount of exposure at the right times," explained events manager and Haskayne student Brigitte Sullivan.

"It's real-world experiential learning," said Cowe-Falls. "This is not in the textbooks. For the engineers, it's the construction of this car; for the business team, it's the actual management of a $650,000 project. It's real-world application of their knowledge."

For Sullivan, the autonomy given to the entirely student-run Solar Team is what encourages its members to expand their technical and professional skills.

"We are allowed to make our own mistakes and learn from those mistakes," said Sullivan. "I think that's what the whole project comes down to ­-- experiential learning by doing. I think that Schulich has done a really good job in understanding that."

It is clear that the Solar Team would not be in existence without student initiative.

"We do year-round recruiting, so if anyone is interested in joining the team, we're always open to letting new people come in," said Sullivan. "If they're willing to learn, then we're definitely willing to teach. Even just coming out and supporting us wherever we are is always a great help too."