This past summer the Parker-sponsored multidisciplinary Walnut Solar Car Team won top honors at the 2017 National Solar Car Challenge. Held at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, this annual event showcases teams of students that design, build, and race solar cars. This victory reflects the spirit of Parker’s “Engineering Your Success” tagline since the team built their cars from the ground-up following traditional engineering principles.
For the last three years Barbara Lam, a senior principal engineer at the Control Systems Division of Parker Aerospace, donated her time along with some company-sponsored resources to make the Walnut Solar Car Team possible. Barbara unexpectedly passed away on January 3, 2018, and her family, friends, and students were shocked and saddened to learn of her passing. She will be missed, however, she has inspired many students and instilled an enthusiasm for engineering that is a testament to her life.
How it began
Here’s how it all began. Barbara had always loved teaching and said transferring her professional knowledge to students was a great pleasure. She had been a part-time professor in the College of Engineering at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and teaching had become a big part of who she was.
Three years ago, she reached out to Walnut Valley School District in an effort to engage high school students who have an interest in engineering. She asked them to join a team to help prepare them for the engineering field with hands-on experience to promote creativity, technical expertise, responsibility, and teamwork.
The Solar Car Challenge
The Solar Car Challenge program, founded in 1993, is a unique opportunity for students to develop skills and apply knowledge learned in science, engineering, and technology. Some of the Walnut Solar Car Team alumni have already gone on to attend top-tier engineering programs at prestigious universities such as California University at Berkley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
In the most recent 2017 competition, about 181 high school students making up 38 teams, entered. After judges evaluate the safety of the vehicles, drivers, and potentially penalize for haphazard driving, many teams are disqualified or don’t finish the race due to car trouble.
The Walnut Solar Car Team
The Walnut Solar Car Team has grown from 17 students in 2016 to 21 students in 2017 and includes students in grades 9 to 12 from Walnut High School and Diamond Bar High School.
It takes about two years total to design and build a car. This year’s first-place car featured a number of innovations:
- A custom blow-formed canopy made in a custom-built oven
- Airplane-inspired body constructed with aluminum sheet metal and airplane rivets
- Rack-and-pinion steering with an upper control arm
- Brushless motor
- Lithium-ion battery
- Energy-efficient solar panels
- Power trackers
- Advanced microprocessor-based telemetry system to monitor efficient power draw and speed using client/server architecture
During the planning, education and training stages of the car building, Barbara used lab-style experiments to teach the students how to design, build, and test cars before they even began conceptualizing a car.
It takes nearly a year for students to design and physically construct the car. It then takes another year to build the electrical components of the vehicle. Once the car is completed, the team tests it for safety, efficiency, and reliability. As a general rule, the more reliable the car, the more likely it is to win because many cars aren’t capable of finishing the race.
For 2017, Barbara’s team built two cars which were entered into two separate categories. The first car, named Wattsun, was an electrical-powered solar car that charges external batteries that are then placed in the car. It was built mainly from steel and took second place in the electric-solar powered division of the contest.
Electrical-powered solar car Wattsun
The second car, a solar-powered vehicle named Sherlock Ohms, used only solar energy to generate power in an internal battery. This car was built mainly from aluminum and was very light and aerodynamic. Sherlock Ohms looks like an airplane wing and can reach speeds up to 65 mph, which is on the high side of the speeds reached by cars entered in the challenge.
Solar powered car - Sherlock Ohms
Winning first place in the advanced division of the solar-powered car category, Sherlock Ohms completed 434 laps around the speedway, covering 651 miles. After second-place finishes in past years, the team was thrilled to take home the first-place prize.
Both Walnut Team cars in the lead on the speedway
“I’m incredibly proud of this team, but not just for excellent design and build skills that resulted in a first-place finish. Each of the three years we’ve been involved in the challenge, our team has won the Sandt Award, which is presented to the Solar Car Team displaying the true spirit of solar car racing through distinguished service to their fellow teams. Each year, you can find us helping other teams to problem solve and troubleshoot so they can finish the race.”
Barbara Lam, senior principal engineer, Control Systems Division, Parker Aerospace
Barbara's team is looking forward to the 2018 challenge, which is a cross-country event from Fort Worth, Texas, to Palmdale, California, and the 2019 event, which will be back at the closed track in Texas. The team also plans to compete in the World Solar Car Race in Australia, a university-level challenge to be held in 2019.
This article is dedicated to Barbara Lam, senior principal engineer, Control Systems Division of Parker Aerospace.
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