It’s 2 p.m. on a crisp Saturday afternoon in early October. About half a dozen teenagers crowd around a car in the garage of Chris Eachus’s Newburgh home, buffing and building, tinkering and tightening. While teenagers have been slaving over their cars for decades, there was something different about this scene: The car looked more like a rectangular flying saucer than a vehicle you’d see cruising around the Hudson Valley.
Eachus, a physics teacher at Newburgh Free Academy High School (NFA), is the advisor of the school’s Solar Racing Team, a unique club that designs, builds, races, and exhibits its own solar and electric vehicles. The club — the most established group of its kind in the state — has been one of the school’s extracurricular activities since 1993, and their cars have been traversing the country for years competing in (and winning) races. Their latest vehicle, however, recently zoomed into the national spotlight after appearing on the Discovery Channel’s new series, Battleground Earth. The reality show features Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and hip-hop superstar Ludacris going tête-à-tête in a rock-versus-rap series of eco-challenges — such as making bio-fuel — as they learn how to reduce their carbon footprint.
So how did the NFA solar team go from the banks of the Hudson to Hollywood? Just as the school year was winding down last May, Eachus received a phone call from Ameresco, a Newburgh-based independent energy solutions company that supports the racing team, asking if they would lend their car to the show. “The Discovery Channel decided that in one of the 10 episodes they would do a solar car race,” explains Eachus. “They contacted several colleges, but none of them would take the time to do it except for Stanford University. Then they found Ameresco, and saw that they had donated $20,000 and equipment for us to build — and win — the Dell-Winston School Solar Car Challenge in 2007.”
It seemed almost impossible that the team could get their car ready in just five days for the shoot in Los Angeles. But Eachus agreed to do the show without hesitation. “I had students in my garage Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday until 3 a.m. working on the car,” he smiles. Once “everything was perfect,” the finished vehicle — a 16-foot-long, 480-pound titanium rectangle on wheels — was loaded onto an 18-wheeler and shipped out to sunny California for its TV début.
Eachus and team cocaptain Jamie Tabanao flew out for the week to be with the car during taping. “It was a fun experience,” says Tabanao, now in his first year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. “I got to meet Tommy Lee and Ludacris. That was really cool. They were asking me a lot of questions. One of them was, ‘Is this really safe?’ ”
TV junkies may be shocked to learn that “reality TV is not really reality,” according to Eachus. “Although they got in the cars and drove them a little, the celebrities did not actually compete.” It would have taken too long for the musicians to learn how to drive the cars: The brakes and other systems work differently than those in conventional vehicles, and the cockpit space is too small to comfortably accommodate a person of average size. So Tabanao “raced” the car for Tommy Lee, “beating” Ludacris, who “drove” the Stanford car. “It’s funny that people look at things on reality TV as if that’s how they happen,” says Eachus. “We actually did the race about 20 times. The producers were like, ‘That was great! Let’s do it again!’ ”
The episode featuring the solar car challenge aired at the end of September. While the excitement over the car’s appearance on the show has now abated, the team still has plenty to look forward to. “We felt that we peaked in 2007, so now we are changing our direction,” says Eachus. “After all these years, people continue to ask us what good these types of cars are if they cannot be used as commuter vehicles. The kids get a little edgy about that. Now we hope to produce more widely accepted vehicles, so we are building smaller electric vehicles.”
Solar-powered cars are full-sized automobiles that take about two years — and a lot of money — for the team to build. (Eachus says it cost $60,000-$80,000 to complete the one used for the show.) Electric vehicles, on the other hand, are smaller, more affordable (average cost $5,000-$10,000), and can be built in about a year. Currently the team is working toward finishing a fully electric car in time for the Electrathon America races next summer.
Photograph by Thomas Moore
In previous years, NFA has used their solar cars (they’ve built seven) to compete against other high schools at both a Texas motor speedway and in cross-country contests. By winning the 2007 Dell-Winston challenge — in which about a dozen teams drove a 2,020-mile route from Texas to Newburgh — the NFA team became the Solar Car Cross-Country National Champions. “Probably the strangest part about the car is its looks,” says Eachus. “People often think that they are UFOs, or boats out of the water. Sometimes we’re out on the interstate, and a traffic jam builds. We won’t go over the speed limit. Unfortunately, sometimes the speed limit isn’t enough, and the other drivers don’t understand why traffic is moving so slowly, they’ll get upset. By the time they catch up and see what it’s all about, they’ll slow down to look and take pictures. Now they’re causing the jam!”
Aside from driving the cars in races, students have a variety of other options if they are interested in joining the club — including fund-raising, PR, accompanying the cars on field trips, and building and design. A number of NFA faculty members are available to help the teens cultivate their skills in mechanical drawing, welding, and electronics, but the students do all the work themselves: building molds, sanding, constructing bodywork, and drawing up blueprints.
The club, which meets twice a month, has about 60 members, with nearly equal numbers of boys and girls; interest continues to grow, partially due to the show. Aside from providing energetic teens with an after-school activity unlike any of those featured at other schools in the region, the club offers opportunities for students to use what they’ve learned in class. “Just the other day, I was working on wiring for the electric car, and we were going over schematics in physics class,” says current cocaptain Chris Bair, a senior at NFA. “There is definitely an overlap. We get to apply the knowledge we get in the classroom to real-life experiences.”
Providing students with hands-on learning opportunities is what motivated Eachus’ predecessor, Lee Cabe, who founded the team 15 years ago; it continues to be Eachus’ focus today. “Our goal is to give the students the ability to work with and have knowledge of composite materials, alternative energy, as well as applications of science,” says Eachus. “We are not building solar cars and electric vehicles to be commuter vehicles; it’s about educating the kids. When they leave school, they know it’s possible, that it can be done.”
Eachus and his students are optimistic about the future of these alternative energy vehicles. “Though the solar technology is available to all of us, it is not good enough to work in the mass market,” explains Eachus. “There is technology out there that would probably work, but it’s just coming to fruition now. Electric vehicles are a done deal if we can take the copyrights away from the motor/oil companies. Solar cars would follow behind that in progression.” Adds Bair: “Our team is a step in the right direction. If high school students can build an electric car and get it on the road, why can’t the automobile manufacturers make that switch?”
Illustration based on a diagram by Lehman Marks, PhD. Used with permission
The basics of solar car design
1. Solar energy is converted directly to electricity by the photovoltaic array
2. Electric energy is stored in batteries. Solar electricity can also go directly to the motor when the car is running
3. Modern electronic motor controllers smoothly and efficiently control power to the motor. Speed control is by a normal accelerator pedal
4. The latest in motor technology uses rare-earth magnets and a brushless design. A 5-hp motor can weigh less than 5 kg (10 lbs.)
5. Gear changing is done electronically in the motor
Zooming onto the scene
SUNY New Paltz is quickly gaining speed with their own Solar Car Club, which is spearheaded by team advisor and engineering professor Mike Otis, and former NFA founder-consultant Lee Cabe. The team has already begun fund-raising and building the frame for its first solar-powered vehicle, the SUN(Y) HAWK. Using the mold of the NFA model, New Paltz expects to complete the car by next May — just in time to practice for the next North American Solar Car Challenge (and ruffle the feathers of the top-seeded University of Michigan team). Race over to www.newpaltz.edu/solarcar for more information.
It’s electric! Read up on some super slick electric cars here.