Supercharged: MIT students overhaul solar car

     BOSTON – In a dingy basement in Boston, some young scientists are putting the finish touches to Eleanor, one of the most advanced solar cars yet designed. The technology-packed, environmentally friendly, solar racing car can hit speeds of 80 mph and drive up to 200 miles in the pitch dark — all good traits for a car getting ready for a long race across the Australian outback. Eleanor is the invention of the solar vehicle team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the universities now preparing for this year’s World Solar Challenge in Australia in October.

Lithium-ion batteries key to speeds up to 80 mph, and 200-mile range

untitled1    “Eleanor” is taller than earlier solar-powered vehicles built by MIT students, allowing a much more comfortable upright seating position for the driver.

   “Eleanor is definitely pushing the limits of what can be done with solar panels and solar power,” said Fiona Hughes, a senior at the school of mechanical engineering at MIT.

   Eleanor, ironically named after the gas-guzzling 1967 Ford Mustang showcased in the movie “Gone in 60 Seconds,” has 20 square feet of silicon solar panels that put out 1,200 watts — about the same as a hair dryer.

   While it doesn’t seem like much power, Eleanor’s weight of less than 500 pounds and aerodynamic design allow her to speed down a highway as fast as many traditional cars.

   “Using just power from the sun, Eleanor can cruise without draining power from her battery pack at about 50 miles per hour. If we were draining power out of the pack we would be able to reach higher speeds, possibly 70-80 miles an hour,” said Hughes.

   Eleanor will compete in the 10th World Solar Challenge — a grueling 7-day, nearly 1,900-mile race from Darwin to Adelaide across the Australian Outback that is a testing event for the latest in efficient solar-powered car design.

   MIT has been competing in the World Solar Challenge since its inaugural event in 1987, and Eleanor is the 10th design that students at MIT will race in the Australian contest.

George Hansel, a physics major at MIT, says the real beauty of Eleanor is her battery pack.

   “Our battery pack is composed of more than 600 cells from laptop batteries. They are lithium-ion cells and they give us an equivalent of about 6 to 7 times that of a normal car battery but is only twice to three times as heavy,” said Hansel.


   The team says their biggest obstacle between now and race day is putting some miles on Eleanor’s tires to ensure their design can perform on the highway and that it will go farther, faster and more efficiently than the competition.

   The last World Solar Challenge, held in 2007, attracted 41 participants.


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