Off to the solar races

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The University of Waterloo based student design team Midnight Sun recently revealed its twelfth design, the Midnight Sun XI. The team will submit their car for upcoming competitions in North America, such as the American Solar Challenge 2016, starting July 30.</p>

In the past, the team has made adventure class vehicles: a three wheeled, one passenger, light-weight high endurance racing vehicle. The MS XI, however, is a cruiser class, a new additional to competitions. It can seat two people, has doors, two motors, four wheels, and visually speaking, is generally more similar to consumer vehicles as compared to previous models.

Imprint discussed the car and the team with Minghao Ji, the engineering manager for Midnight Sun. Ji has been with the team for a year and has not participated in a race before. If fact, most of the team wasn’t involved in the initial designs of the new model. “But now we’re the ones that are finishing manufacturing it,” Ji said.

“This will be the first race that we’ve attended and the first solar car we’ve ever built,” Ji said, “[It’s] also quite challenging because a lot of knowledge transfer needs to happen … a lot of our members are co-op students, which means we have two teams that operate alternatively, which is also very challenging.”

The Midnight Sun team recruits early with students, typically in first year. Students with no experience are welcome to apply, as the team will provide education and training on “how to do practical electronics design, how do you solder a PCB, how do you test a PCB, what is a PCB, you know things, like that,” Ji said. Most teaching takes place at the engineering endowment-funded E5 machine shop.

“These are skills we teach our members and it’s very important to us that we are continuously educating all of our members. Because at the end of the day, everyone who works on this team is doing it because they love what they do and they want to work with us because they’re learning a lot from just being here,” Ji said.

According to Ji, the MS XI has a lot of “very ambitious design.” The most prominent being the new carbon fiber structural body. Older versions used aluminum frames. “With MS XI, the entire car resembles an eggshell, so there’s a very strong carbon fiber material that is forming the exterior of the car and that is strong enough by itself to give the car strength so you don’t need a metal frame inside,” Ji said.

A challenge the team faced with the new design was additional weight. The carbon fiber helps reduce weight as compared to an aluminum frame. “[The] general powering of the solar array is the same, regardless of the type of car you have since you only have so much area. So it’s very important that you keep the weight as low as possible to maximize how far you can travel, “Ji said.

The upcoming race, the American Solar Challenge, has two parts both lasting a week each. The first segment takes place on a race track where race officials and engineers will inspect the MS XI’s components, battery, construction, and so on. The team will then drive the MS XI to gather data on the vehicle and make sure everything works.

The second segment is the real race. According to Ji, “We actually race from Ohio to South Dakota on public highways so that segment of the race will have check points for each day and every day you will be trying to reach those checkpoints with solar power as quickly as possible.” The highways will not be closed, but the race will have lead and chase cars.

The race drivers have yet to be chosen.  The team is looking for smaller people for strategic purposes, but that is a minimal requirement. “The biggest quality we look for is obviously that the driver is committed to our team, that they have a good team dynamic and that they fit in the car,” Ji said.

Once the American Solar Challenge is over, the Midnight Sun team will be focusing on recruitment and stating on the design the next car model. They will continue to use the MS XI in future races, but will begin development on the MS XII at the same time.

The model was revealed recently, but has yet to be finished. According to Ji, the team plans to have it complete for the race in late July.