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Rivalry Heats Up : Engineering Students Compete in Building Solar-Powered Cars


SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — Working on just three hours of sleep, Tai Nuyen spent his lunchtime soldering wires to connect wafer-thin solar cells that cover the race car he and his Cal State Los Angeles engineering colleagues feverishly were building.

Above him a huge board detailed a lengthy "to-do" list that must be completed before the solar-powered vehicle can take its first competitive trial run in Phoenix on Saturday.

"My internal body clock is all screwed up. But I'm psyched. Everybody is psyched," said 24-year-old Nuyen, one of the drivers of "Solar Eagle II," which looks like a futuristic soapbox derby entry.

At Cal Poly Pomona, a rival team was also laboring away with the intensity of a Rose Parade float construction crew on New Year's Eve. In a warehouse-sized workshop where the "Intrepid" is under construction, 21-year-old Vishal Gupta laid out long strips of solar cells to be wrapped around the vehicle's flying-wedge-shaped shell.

Many a night "people have slept right here," mechanical engineering senior Gupta said, looking around the lab where more than a dozen of his fellow volunteers labored away as midnight approached. "I have my sleeping bag in my office," said Mike Shelton, Cal Poly Pomona mechanical engineering professor and Intrepid project director, as he monitored the work.

Obsessed and addicted, students and faculty at Cal State L.A. and Cal Poly Pomona are devoting day and night to prepare for Saturday's qualifying matches against eight other schools in the Western United States. The school entries that meet minimum design and speed standards will compete in a weeklong 1,000-mile collegiate race that starts June 20 and goes from Texas to Minnesota.

Cal State L.A. and Cal Poly Pomona have developed an intense rivalry over who will be the best in Southern California, if not the nation, in making these essentially pollution-free vehicles that run on no more power than it takes to use a hair dryer. No other schools from the Southland are competing.

"It's a very friendly rivalry," said Pomona's Tina Shelton, who admits that her team once put a carload of balloons and a "Baby on Board" sign in the car of Raymond B. Landis, dean of Cal State L.A.'s engineering and technology department.

"We feel a real pressure to beat our sister institution down the road," said Cal State L.A. engineering professor Richard Roberto, whose troops anonymously sent Pomona a plaque that declared Cal Poly has the second-best solar car in California.

The cross-county rivalry began in 1990 when the two universities competed in the first collegiate solar car race, which wentfrom Florida to Michigan. Cal State L.A. finished fourth in a field of 32, beating more prestigious schools such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford--and Cal Poly Pomona, which finished 10th.

The competition intensified when the two Southern California universities traveled to an Australian race. That time, they finished eight minutes apart in an eight-day event, with Cal State L.A. finishing one place ahead of Cal Poly Pomona.

To build the cars and to race them in places such as Australia has been an unparalleled opportunity for Cal State L.A.'s Ricardo Espinosa.

"I've been very lucky. Very few people in the world get a chance to . . . race across Australia in a solar car," said the 24-year-old mechanical engineering senior from South Pasadena, who is a driver for his team. "You're learning things you won't learn in the classroom--real engineering."

And what Espinosa and his schoolmates learn by building solar cars, he said, is catapulting them into the future of engineering.

The race cars are similar in basic mechanics to all-electric cars that are expected to be mass-marketed in the mid-1990s. The difference is that solar car batteries are powered by the sun instead of connection to an electric current.

Hundreds of tiny solar cells--as many as 1,600 are on the Cal State L.A. vehicle and 1,100 on the Cal Poly Pomona one--collect the sunlight, which is converted to electrical

energy that is stored in a series of batteries much like ones in ordinary cars.

These batteries provide the power for the ever-so-quiet lightweight motors that drive belts and chains that move the wheels. This time, both Cal State L.A. and Cal Poly Pomona have built three-wheel vehicles that rely on heavy-duty bicycle tires.

The tight driver's compartment includes a steering wheel with a throttle and a braking-system lever.

To design and construct all of this requires "putting theory into practice, and that's hard" and time-consuming, Espinosa said.

The students design the vehicles, conduct tests in wind tunnels, build the molds, bodies, frames and shells. They scavenge parts where they can.

As an example of the ingenuity required, Cal State L.A.'s Roberto devised a brake fluid container from a Fuji film canister. Because it is clear plastic, it allows for a quick visual inspection to check the fluid level.

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