February 19, 2009 — For one group of University of Virginia engineering students, the timing is right to begin making the transition to solar-powered, electric vehicles.
"It's a matter of having social demand and the technical ability to follow through with it," said Lydia Barker, a first-year mechanical engineering graduate student at U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science.
During the 36 years since the 1973 oil crisis first planted the need for alternative energy into the American psyche, there have been significant strides in solar car technology, including more compact, affordable and efficient batteries, as well as improvements in the photovoltaic systems needed to create a practical, solar-powered electric vehicle.
With the current confluence of the recent spike in gas prices, a general consensus about global climate change and the world's growing environmental consciousness, there is now a strong social demand for such alternative energy solutions.
Barker is one of 32 students in an engineering class that is taking a hands-on approach to creating these solutions. Under the guidance of James Durand, an adjunct professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the class is converting a gas-powered 1993 Honda Accord to run on electricity generated through a photovoltaic solar energy system.
Students in the class — now operating under the project name "Ride Forward" — will receive a final grade, but many are committed to the work beyond earning course credit. The group has an ambitious mission to convert other vehicles in the Charlottesville area and has embarked on an $80,000 fundraising campaign to complete work on the Accord.
Durand hopes this project will serve as the cornerstone for an eventual sustainable transportation research center that will combine experiential learning, fundamental research and online outreach activities.
"Students are taking this very seriously; they have a sincere interest in making a difference," Durand said. "There is a feeling that this project could grow into something that changes policy or the way people travel."
Working out of the decommissioned Nuclear Reactor Facility on Observatory Hill, the Ride Forward team removed all of the Accord's gas components – including the engine, exhaust system and certain auxiliary systems – during the fall semester. They also created a bill of materials, basically a shopping list of all the necessary components for the conversion, and completed a design of the vehicle.
When students actually began work on the vehicle conversion, they found some procedures much more difficult than expected. Also, certain products, such as an electric engine, were as much as 10 times the price advertised online.
"For the students, this work goes beyond problem sets and writing papers," Durand said. "When they are working with real systems, they are forced to deal with how to actually overcome problems and make the vehicle work."
It is these types of lessons, that only hands-on learning experiences can provide, that Durand believes will benefit others. With information organized online, the group's Web site could serve as an online toolkit for other classes, groups or individuals interested in pursuing similar projects.
Due to the complex and multi-disciplinary demands of converting a vehicle, the Ride Forward team is organized into small subgroups to take advantage of U.Va. engineering students' diverse skill sets. One group focuses on designing and building the drive train, one group integrates the vehicle's auxiliary systems, and another works on energy storage. There are also a series of groups handling business functions such as Web development, planning and marketing.
This past semester, Ride Forward also partnered with the Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center to have the Accord refinished and painted.
While the group now consists solely of engineering students, they hope to recruit students from other U.Va. schools and are especially interested in students with policy and legal knowledge.
"Policy analysis will show the best approach from a societal standpoint, instead of looking at the vehicle conversion strictly as a technical problem," Durand said.
He defines success for the project as a full conversion of the vehicle and connecting a photovoltaic system to the University's power grid. In the future, Durand hopes the group will be able to convert one gas-powered vehicle to electric each year and eventually power the University's fleet of service vehicles.
If the group is not able to create a system that can pull enough energy from the sun to power vehicles directly, they hope to create a system that will at least offset use of fossil fuels by adding renewable, solar-generated electric power back onto the grid.
"Our overarching goal is to put more electric vehicles on the streets and create more photovoltaic systems," Durand said. "We want to have a positive impact on the energy picture."
Whatever the final outcome of their efforts, the Ride Forward team is already making a difference.