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Solar World: Student solar cars compete

TEL AVIV, Israel (UPI) -- A team of Mississippi high school students have not only built a solar-powered car, but are planning to beat out the competition this weekend in a solar car race in Texas.

'Everyone`s spirits are high and they know all the time and sweat they have put in will be worth it when we get out there on the Texas Motor Speedway!' the students from Team Sundancer, of Houston Vocational Center in Mississippi, posted on their team blog this week.

The teens are on their way to the Dell-Winston School Solar Car Challenge, where teams from high schools around the country race solar-powered cars they designed and built. The contest, an annual event since its inception 10 years ago, encourages the study of science and engineering, according to the competition`s official Web site.

On even-numbered years like this year, the race is indoors, around the outdoor Texas Motor Speedway, used to host NASCAR events. On odd-numbered years, the teams take to the roads to drive cross-country.

This year`s race will feature 15 teams in the classic division, including two from India and one from Puerto Rico. Team Sundancer is competing in the open division against two other teams.

The state of Mississippi is best-represented at the competition, with 4 teams participating overall. There are also teams from New York, California, Colorado, Texas and Louisiana, the Dell-Winston Web site said.

The Sundancers are five-time defending champions at the contest. 'I`m nervous, but really excited ... I`m just ready to go,' team captain Leigh Anna Springer told United Press International in a telephone interview.

The kids design and build the car themselves, with the help of an adviser-coach. 'Every year, the students work to improve all aspects of the car`s design from the year before,' the student`s coach Keith Reese said.

'They try to lower the weight of the car, streamline the aerodynamics and squeeze as much electricity out of the solar cells as possible.'

Springer said making the car lighter than last year`s model was a major focus for the team this year. 'We reduced the weight by 100 or 200 pounds,' Springer said. 'There was a lot of heavy stuff on top ... and we took weight off the back of the car.'

Their vehicle looks like an average soap box race car of old -- with the addition of an array of solar cells on the roof long enough for all 13 team members to line up next to. There are 856 photovoltaic panels, provided by solar energy firm SCHOTT, to be exact.

Just like the solar energy systems found on many home rooftops, they`re made of silicon cells that convert sunlight to electricity via a chemical reaction.

Though the design doesn`t seem very aerodynamic, with the rectangular solar cells` panel squarely over the front of the car, Springer said that aerodynamics were less important than getting as many solar cells as possible onto the vehicle.

'The (contest) rules limit the number of panels (to 856),' she added.

SCHOTT boasts in a company statement that the team started using its photovoltaic panels in 2001, the same year they started winning.

'In addition to teaching students about solar energy, this program also helps students learn what engineering is really all about,' SCHOTT Solar product engineer Grace Xavier said, in a company statement.

'In fact, to me the most exciting thing about the project is that I see young people getting excited about solving engineering challenges -- the same type of experience that led me to choose a career in engineering,' Xavier continued.

Though the students` achievements are formidable, don`t expect to see solar cars on the market any time soon. Team Sundancer`s car, 5 meters, 1.8 meters wide and 1 meter high, goes an average of 28 miles-per-hour.

Solar researcher and Chief Executive Officer of Israeli solar company Distributed Solar Power Ltd. Danny Kaftori, told UPI recently that to power a regular car at regular speeds would require 1,000 square meters of photovoltaic panels -- a quarter-acre, or approximately the area of many U.S. suburban homeowners` lots.

Copyright 2006 by United Press International

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