Racing the Sun: A Vision for the Future

What’s next for Team Sunergy? Even before leaving Boone for the track in Pittsburgh, the team was looking to the future and imagining the next generation. At the team’s send-off, Blakeley talked about the Apperion project being a step toward developing a marketable vehicle for the public. The next car they build will be in the cruiser class, will seat two people, and will look and feel more like a car the average driver can hop into and drive away.

The team has big dreams. They already have a concept in design for a next generation Apperion, which they hope to construct and ultimately compete in the World Solar Challenge, a cross-continental race across the Outback of Australia.

Senior physics major Abby Hastings explained why the mountains of North Carolina provide the ideal location for developing this technology. “We are from the home of racing,” she said. “Some of us even have some racing background… and what we’re doing here is important. NASCAR definitely improved vehicles. I think this is the same thing. It’s improving the technology in order to make cars more sustainable. We’re creating a demand for it… This is something people can watch and be entertained by. Once you’ve got something like that, it just pushes [the technology] forward, and that’s why I think it’s really important.”

The future of transportation is sustainable

Why is racing a car with a 6.7 horsepower motor important? These students and their advisors will tell you, the race is important, but it’s more than just a race. “This race is not like any other automotive race people think of,” Dr. Jeremy Ferrell, one of the team’s faculty advisors, explained. “It’s a huge part of the puzzle to address climate change and climate destabilization. Solarizing our transportation sector is something that is happening, and is key to decarbonizing our energy source. I think [our team] really gets that at a fundamental level. They’re going to be the future engineers and designers of solar- powered cars and low-footprint transportation.

“If you connect the dots between all of the challenges we need to tackle to make our planet a place we want our kids and grandkids to grow up in, transportation is a big part of the overall solution,” said Ferrell. “Our students get that. They want to create a showpiece that says, ‘Hey look, we can do a lot better with transportation.’”

Ferrell continued, “Car manufacturers are just getting to the point where they are commercializing this technology. As the cars get lighter and carbon-fiber technology becomes stronger and more crash-resistant, we are going to see vehicles that are able to be powered by small battery packs. Five, 10 years from now, we’re going to see these vehicles that people want to buy. You’re going to want to own one of these things because they are efficient and they don’t produce any pollution.”

Jongmin Na, a senior physics major from South Korea, noted, “The concentration of carbon dioxide [in the atmosphere] has reached the highest point it has ever been, and half of that [level] has risen in the last 50 years. Most scientists agree that a major contributor is the conventional vehicles, like diesel and gasoline. And this is affecting us. We are trying to design a vehicle that is eco-friendly… something that doesn’t hurt the earth. And that’s our vehicle.”

For senior finance and banking major Andrew Grimes, developing the solar transportation that will become mainstream is about “finding a way to make our world better for the next generation.”

Ferrell soaks up the energy, the enthusiasm and the passion of his students, and is inspired. For five days of interviews, squeezed between assessments and inspections and pit stops and laps and maintenance, and even a meal now and again, they have been ardently grasping for the words to explain what they want to tell the world. In the way only an Appalachian advisor can, Ferrell sums it up: “The car of the future is a solar car.”

GIVE

The generosity of private donors allowed Team Sunergy to design and build a high-performance solar vehicle and travel it to an international competition. In less than two years, they were holding their own in a competition that included world-renowned engineering schools. Their plans for the future include a new design that will set the standard for road-ready, commuter vehicles. Your support can make this happen!

Acknowledgements

Web work by Pete Montaldi and Derek Wycoff. Video production by Garrett Ford. Photography by Marie Freeman, with additional images by Bailey Winecoff and Dr. Lee Ball. Audio production by Dave Blanks. Writing by Megan Hayes and Elisabeth Wall. Art by Jim Fleri. Editing by Linda Coutant. Logistics management by Stephanie Naoum. Technical support by Wes Craig. Creative direction and executive production by Troy Tuttle.

Special thanks to Dr. Lee Ball and Dr. Jeremy Ferrell for the context, history and on-site updates.

Shoutout to the Principia College and Iowa State University for the support, mentorship and parts you generously provided to Team Sunergy.

Very special thanks to Andrew Grimes, and every member of Team Sunergy. You are an inspiration.