Delayed gratification: Texas State seniors play the long game with solar-electric car build
Jayme Blaschke | May 6, 2019
Johnny Cash scored his last No. 1 hit in 1976 with "One Piece at a Time," a humorous song about a man who builds himself a luxury car over the course of several decades. A similar, albeit more serious, scene is unfolding at Texas State University, with seniors in the Ingram School of Engineering partnering to construct a solar-powered electric car from the ground up.
Their efforts — along with those of 55 other team projects — were on display in Ingram Hall, May 7.
Senior design, or capstone, projects are one of the most important aspects of undergraduate activity in the Ingram School of Engineering. Most students enroll in capstone courses during their senior year, and participate in team-based design of a system or component related to their major field of study.
Inspired by the American Solar Challenge, the Texas State solar car project began three years ago and is unique in that once one team of seniors complete their work, they pass the car on to new undergraduate teams to build upon what's already been completed. Seniors Alex Greer of Grapevine and Beau Smith of Hallsville, both electrical engineering majors with a specialization in micro- and nano-devices, have spent the better part of two semesters designing and installing an electrical safety system in the car.
"Our primary effort was integrating the safety system into some of the past projects, interfacing with the chassis and getting all the sensors in the right places," Smith said. "We're trying to get to where we can drive the car by the end of the semester. We're close, but not there yet."
"Even if it's drivable, it wouldn't be anywhere near competition ready," said Greer. "There are times when there are two different electrical engineering teams and a manufacturing engineering team all working on it at the same time. The issue with that is not everybody designed their portion to interface with another team's portion. A lot of our work involves integrating all of those projects together and making them work in conjunction."
American Solar Challenge cars fielded by teams from such schools as the University of Michigan, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have invested millions of dollars and decades of effort into their programs. The Texas State program is bootstrapping itself on a shoestring budget. Rich Compeau, professor of practice in the Ingram School of Engineering, oversees the electrical engineering senior design program, and Nate England, a research associate in Shared Research Operations, provides expertise in power electronics and motors. Beyond the contributions of several other engineering faculty members, however, the students are mostly on their own.
"We try not to reinvent the wheel. We're using a fairly constructivist approach in our teaching," Compeau explained. "We let the students stub their toes, but not fall flat on their faces.
"For three years we've been working toward a prototype of a solar car. We started with some of the subsystems and we played with a golf cart because you have to have a platform," he said. "Last year, students in manufacturing engineering created a chassis. It's a welded steel frame. Slow and steady wins the race. We're not to the point yet where we can have the prototype drive around campus, but we're getting there." While the skeletal car approaches drivability, it's still several years and many more senior design teams away from completion. Funding remains a significant issue, with lightweight materials, high-efficiency solar panels, lithium-ion batteries and industrial-quality electronic components costing more than a senior design budget can bear. Lack of a dedicated facility also hampers the build, but the lack of a dedicated faculty member who can ensure compatibility and adherence to a unified project plan from semester to semester is the one of the solar car effort's biggest needs. The Texas Solar Car project will need those resources if it is ever to compete in the American Solar Challenge.
Even so, the participating undergraduates have proven that a solar electric car can be built from scratch with cheap components. It's not easy, but they're learning a lot in the process that will serve them well in the future.
"This has been a great experience, because we're learning about embedded systems," Smith said. "That's where everything's going now. You almost have to know programming to do any kind of engineering."
"I've always been interested in renewable energy," Greer said. "I could see myself working for an energy company that's trying to convert from non-renewable resources to renewable resources, be it panels, geothermal or turbines. I think all of that is very interesting."