Ohio State student team shines light on solar-powered cars

Posted: March 10, 2023
Buckeye Solar Racing students work on the car's chassis
Students working on the car at the Center for Automotive Research in November 2022.

Even on the grayest of winter days, a team of students at The Ohio State University is thinking of how the sun can power a car.

The university’s newest motorsports team—Buckeye Solar Racing—started in the spring of 2021 with just a handful of students and an idea. Mechanical engineering major Moustapha Bal (’23) had watched a documentary on the 2019 World Solar Challenge and wondered why Ohio State didn’t have its own team. With help from his classmate Samantha Turner, he decided to start one

“After my time at Ohio State, I want to leave something that I can remember and something that can be a beneficial experience for future students,” said Bal, who serves as the team’s executive officer. “My main goal for this club is for it to last.”

In just two years’ time, the team has grown exponentially. Its membership has increased to more than 30 members across various majors with several subcommittees, including structural, electrical, aerodynamic, and business and media teams. But it was a chance meeting with a would-be competitor that gave the Buckeye Solar team their big break. While attending the American Solar Challenge in Topeka, Kansas, in the summer of 2021, the students connected with Western Michigan University’s team, who eventually donated their old car to the Buckeyes.  

“That was a huge help because it basically gave us a starting point. We had no funding, not a lot of knowledge, and it was a huge leg up,” said Operations Director Samantha Turner (mechanical engineering ‘23).

“The cool thing about the solar car community is that it’s so welcoming to new teams. It’s extremely competitive, and it’s hard to actually qualify for a race,” she added. “So instead of having this fierce, cutthroat environment, it’s very much a community. There’s a lot of knowledge sharing, and you’ll see many teams donating their old vehicles to other teams.”

A student works on the Buckeye Solar Racing vehicle

While the car donation was helpful, it was in a state of disrepair. It needed an entirely new chassis and an electrical system replacement. The only portions the team could salvage were the aeroshell and solar cells, which make up the top of the car. Building a solar car without the generational knowledge that more storied student teams possess has had its challenges, according to Turner. But the team has made steady progress. In October 2022, Buckeye Solar Racing officially moved into the Center for Automotive Research, a much-needed space to start the car-build process. Along with revamping the chassis, the team also acquired a new motor and finished the design of the canopy.

With these advancements, the team is well on its way toward achieving its goal of competing this year. First up is the Formula Sun Grand Prix (FSGP), June 27-July 2, an annual track competition held on grand prix or road style closed courses in Topeka. The winner is determined by the total number of laps completed over the three days of racing. The team that completes the fastest single lap around the track is also recognized in the awards ceremony.

“We’re excited—excited and nervous,” said Turner. “It's a really big ask to be race ready just two years into your project. There’s still a lot we have to do.”

Regardless of how they place, Buckeye Solar Racing is giving students an invaluable experience. Along with the hands-on experiential learning that’s critical to the future success of an engineer, team members form a community that can last the entirety of their college careers.

“Teams like this are essential to an engineer's whole development,” said Turner. “When they get into the real world, they're able to have this experience they can talk about in their job interviews and that they can learn from when they're starting their careers.”

“The other thing is that this is a great social program,” she added. “We have a lot of students with similar interests and we all work together very often to make this car happen. So it's great to have a good group of friends that you can have all four years of college.”

To learn more about Buckeye Solar Racing, visit buckeyesolar.org.

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications | biss.11@osu.edu
Contributions from Jake Rahe, Dept. of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Category: Students