Solar car team at KU aims to build a vehicle and race by next summer

photo by: Courtesy KU Solar Car

From left, KU Solar Car members Nick Kellerman, Gabe Owings and Michael Srimongkolkul pose for a photo in front of the University of Kentucky solar car Saturday July 6, 2019, at the Formula Sun Grand Prix in Austin, TX.

Zoning out during an engineering lecture, KU student Michael Srimongkolkul and his friends were distracted on their laptops in November 2017 when one of Srimongkolkul’s friends shared some information he found on a solar car competition.

They were instantly hooked.

“I had no prior experience with cars, electric vehicles or batteries … so I thought (creating a solar car) would be a good place to get started,” Srimongkolkul said.

Now, after a slow first year, the KU Solar Car club is off the ground, with 25 members and a goal of raising $50,000 to build its own solar car for a race next summer. Srimongkolkul, now the program director for KU Solar Car, said the first car, powered entirely by solar panels and batteries, will serve as a foundation for the team’s future cars.

“This car (will be) running on shoe strings,” Srimongkolkul said. “It’s very cheap, and that’s because we’re the first iteration of a solar car team (at KU).

KU engineering student Nick Kellerman joined KU Solar Car in the fall and is in charge of designing the power supply for the team’s car. Kellerman said he has always been interested in sustainability, especially electric vehicles. He said KU Solar Car not only gives him hands-on experience, but also a greater purpose.

“I’ve grown up in the generation … where environmental concerns are of huge importance,” Kellerman said. “I have a purpose besides filling a bubble in my own resume. … it’s rewarding knowing that I’m working toward a better future, to use a cliche term.”

While a majority of the team consists of electrical and mechanical engineering students like Srimongkolkul, the team managed to attract students from outside of the engineering school, as well.

“At KU, there isn’t a whole lot of activity in terms of promoting sustainable technology … so we wanted to be that place for students who believe in that,” Srimongkolkul said. “That’s how we ended up becoming pretty diverse because we do get students (from outside of the engineering school) who believe in that sustainable technology and end up wanting to join the team.”

To help raise the $50,000 needed to build the first car, the team has a dedicated business staff dedicated to community outreach programs and recruiting sponsors.

Hayden Barnes who manages the team’s finances and community outreach, said the team needs sponsors to keep building new cars and to travel to competitions.

“The car will only run for, at most, four years, and then you want to try to build on the new mechanics and designs that have come out,” Barnes said.

Barnes said his interest in science and engineering stems from his high school robotics program and Marvel’s “Iron Man” movies, in which the superhero Tony Stark uses his high-tech inventions to save the day.

“I kind of see the whole science and S.T.E.M. field as the future, and I want to help bring the future forward,” Barnes said.

While 80% of the first car has been designed, Barnes said the team only has around $10,000 of the $50,000 it will need. Srimongkolkul said he is decently confident that the team will be able to begin building the car in the fall despite the lack of funding. He said the team’s plans for raising more money include crowdfunding or looking for raw material donations. He hopes that as the team makes progress and gets more public exposure, the donations will snowball.

“(People see us as a) rag-tag group of students who just want to start a team here at KU … people are very skeptical about us,” Srimongkolkul said. “Now that we actually have funding and can build something from it … they’re going to want to get on the success train and want to be more supportive of us.”

Even while trying to achieve their ambitious short-term goal of building a working solar car and completing one lap at a race in 2020, both Srimongkolkul and Kellerman hope their first car will help turn their club into a permanent team at the KU School of Engineering.

“We could really do something here that could last many generations,” Kellerman said. “I could come back in maybe 10 of 15 years and be able to tour the engineering building and see the first, second, and third iterations of the first solar car that I helped build … that’d be extremely rewarding.”

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