Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Tears of the Sun

by Ana Valenzuela

Caroline Mae Jenairo was like any other college senior. She had grades to maintain, papers to pass, professors to please, but unlike girls her age who were learning about the newest makeup products and how to curl her hair, she had to learn about power tools and how to use them. And not just your ordinary screwdrivers, mind you, but welding tools, as this girl was already building a car. Not just any other car but a solar-powered car.

Jenairo, a fourth year Mechanical Engineering student of De La Salle, is part of the team that built the Sikat II set to compete in the World Solar Challenge in the Australian Outback from Oct.16 to 23. The team consists of 22 students and three professors from De La Salle University Manila’s Mechanical Engineering and Electronics and Communications Departments. The product of the team's hard work was recently unveiled to a chosen number of the media at the campus grounds.

Harnessing the sun

Solar energy in terms of economies of scale is a relatively new technology. “People will come out with better manufacturing processes, higher yield. In the future it will become part of the power generation, not exactly solar powered cars but part of energy and powering portable equipment like cell phones and batteries,” predicts Jack Catalan, team leader and faculty adviser.

“The motivation for building a solar car is for the Philippines to field an entry to the world’s solar challenge. The idea is to have a Filipino car join the race,” says Jack.

The team started working on the Sikat II early February of this year. The Philippine team has a good chance of winning, as the organizers have cut down on the allowed space grade cells. “The organizers are cutting down on the performance versus the resources. They cut down the allowed size of the space grade cells; these are the type which is better performing more endowed teams are able to afford. Chances of getting to compete with richer teams are better compared to previous competitions,” says Jack.

As for technological improvements, it seems to be starting now as the team proudly introduced a few upgrading in to the design of the new solar car as compared to the predecessors Sinag, which also competed in the World Solar challenge in 2007 finishing 12th overall, and the Sikat 1, which travelled from Mindanao to Luzon.

“The flaws that we saw in our previous designs, we corrected in Sikat II. We used better composite materials. Unlike before, we used PVC comb so now we used lightweight carbon fiber-honeycomb composite for it to be lighter,” said student Caroline Mae. Indeed, the new material makes Sikat II is ten kilograms lighter than Sikat 1.

Aside from the weight, they were additional adjustments made to the car.“Sikat II’s solar panels are better. They are better in terms of encapsulation, if you can remember Sikat1’s solar arrays are bright. If we used the old materials it is very difficult to maintain, a little scratch, a little dust would affect the performance. But this one we respect that it would fare better in performance and maintenance,” says Jack.

“All the other components are inherited from Sikat1, but given all the improvements plus the method we used to construct it, we trust that Sikat II is a far better car. It is lighter, has better aerodynamics, its shape is better than Sikat1 that its air resistance would be lower. New materials and new techniques make it sturdier and lighter,” says Jack. With all the developments, the team hopes that Sikat II will have a great finish in the coming 3,000 kilometer run. Sikat II is faster than its predecessor able to run at a top speed of 110lph with its two kilowatt motor. When running on its 4,000 watt hour Lithium-ion battery and solar array power at a speed of 85 kilometer per hour, Sikat II can travel more than 800 kilometers.

The team has learnt much to set up the best car possible for the upcoming cross-continent World Solar Challenge. Apart from that Jenairo shares what they learnt, “Time management also. We worked day and night, so we had to do a lot of catching up in our academics, we have to sacrifice a little of our sleep, and a little of our social activities. But this is a once in a lifetime experience so for me this is really worth it.” She says with a smile.

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