Solar car competition energizes Morton Grove woman
Sarah Noll, 23, of Morton Grove, is one of two women on a 20-person racing team competing in a 1,600-mile cross-country race of solar-powered cars that started July 14 and runs through July 21. | Contributed photo
NAME: Sarah Noll
BEST KNOWN AS: Solar-car racer
HOMETOWN: Morton Grove
Updated: August 20, 2012 6:23AM
A fleet of seemingly space-age silver vehicles passing through the Midwest in mid-July would no doubt cause some heads to turn.
As alien as they appear the 16 cars scheduled to travel to and from Normal, Ill., are actually man-made, typically from scratch, by college students exploring the benefits of alternative energy.
“It looks like spaceship or boat,” Sarah Noll said of the sleek, silver, oblong vehicle bearing the number 5 for Team Mercury, Illinois State University’s solar-car squad.
Back on the streets, “no one knows what it is,” she said. “People stare so we always are trying to avoid getting hit.”
Noll, 23, of Morton Grove, is one of two women on the 20-person racing team competing in a 1,600-mile cross-country race of solar-powered cars that started July 14 and runs through July 21.
On July 13, Team Mercury took fourth in a qualifying race on a motor speedway in Monticello, N.Y., before hitting the open streets.
A recent ISU grad with degrees in economics and environmental studies, she gets how cost-effective science and technology solutions can lead to a greener planet.
Cars as a hobby, though, is something new.
“I don’t like cars in the sense that most of the boy on the team like cars,” she explained. “But anyone can do it.”
Team Mercury appeals primarily to students interested in science, engineering and technology, though Noll points out its founder was a music major. Professors from the university’s physics department oversee the team’s activities.
But unlike some of their competitors Team Mercury doesn’t have the backing of an engineering program or big sponsors to cover all of its costs or contribute ready-made parts.
In some ways that has worked to their advantage, Toll said. Last year the team placed second at the Formula Sun Grand Prix in Indianapolis.
Noll puts the car’s total costs at around $40,000.
“It takes us longer (to create) because we put more work into it but we know the car because we built it,” she said. “If something is broke we know how we fix it.”
Noll personally learned how to do metalwork to create tire hubs for the flat, aerodynamic car, which balances on two front tires and one in the rear, and weighs about 700 pounds.
Power is derived from 492 single crystal silicon cells attached to its exterior. Each solar cell yields about 3 watts, putting the maximum array output at 1,492 watts.
“There are no luxuries — it’s a one-seater and there’s no trunk,” Noll said. “It’s like driving a very big, rectangular, fragile boat.”
The driver sits in an encased cockpit and keeps in touch via walkie-talkies with teammates in a chase car monitoring the car’s power levels.
Since the car is electric it has no need for a gas pedal; instead, drivers punch a clutch on a go-kart-like steering wheel for acceleration.
Speed is determined by how much energy from sun the car soaks into its batteries. It can reach up to 70 miles per hour, though most of the time it cruises at about 40. Conserving power is a must, Noll said, particularly on cloudy days.
“We run on the power you use for a hair dryer,” she said. “You don’t need that much power to drive a car and yet (non-electric cars) use so much oil.”
That comment hints at the school teams’ main purpose for creating and driving solar cars: to demonstrate the eco-friendliness and cost-effectiveness of alternative and renewable energies.
For example, in addition to absorbing energy from solar cells, Team Mercury’s car uses regenerative breaking to add juice to its batteries. The energy it takes to slow down every time the break pedal is pushed transfers to the car’s battery pack, which is then reused to propel it forward.
“We are test dummies of what works and what doesn’t work,” Noll said.
The upcoming American Solar Challenge is the next test of the drivers’ and cars’ limits.
Starting in Rochester, N.Y., solar-car teams must pass through all eight states that border the Great Lakes to reach a finish line in St. Paul, Minn. They had to reach the Normal checkpoint on July 18.
The cross-country race will be Noll’s first time competing in the red-and black “5” car. She called it “a very-once-in-a-lifetime experience” and is proud of how far she’s come since joining the team a year ago.
She also excited for the road that lies ahead.
“It’s cool to show that I knew nothing about this before and now I’m building a car and participating in a race,” Noll said.