BOZEMAN — It's roughly 14 feet long and covered in solar panels. It contains 408 lithium ion batteries and is designed to reach speeds of 70 mph. And it made multiple appearances in recent days at Earth Day-related events.
It's the solar-powered car designed and built by students on the Bridger Solar Team at Montana State University.
"This is about the lowest emissions car you can make," said electrical engineering sophomore Scott Smith as he showed the car at MSU's Sustainabilibash on Thursday. "A cornerstone of our club is promoting environmental sustainability."
The Sustainabilibash drew more than 30 student groups and other organizations to the Centennial Mall for a celebration of the university's sustainability efforts. The Bridger Solar Team also showed the car at an Earth Day event at the Bozeman Public Library on Saturday.
Smith, who leads the electrical portion of the project, said the car is almost ready to hit the road. Over the next couple of weeks, the team will finish the electrical system and begin practicing for the Formula Sun Grand Prix, a three-day solar car race in Austin, Texas, in July.
"I'm excited," said Smith, who will be one of the drivers at the race.
The car can run for about 2.5 hours at 30-40 mph on a fully charged battery, Smith said. But because the solar panels generate electricity and recharge the battery while the car is running, it can carry a driver indefinitely while the sun is shining.
The nearly finished car is the culmination of almost two years of work by dozens of students. Several teams of seniors in multiple disciplines in MSU's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering have designed and built parts of the car for their capstone projects, which they must complete to graduate.
"It's been a big undertaking," said Kyle Melton, who will graduate in May with a bachelor's in computer science. He played a key role in implementing the computer system that displays how much energy the solar panels are producing and how much is being used to propel the car, so that the driver can adjust their speed. After graduation, Melton is heading to a job with Lockheed Martin in Denver.
Lee Randall, a sophomore from Bozeman who is leading the mechanical engineering portion of the project, said that most of the car is custom-built. "Very little has been bought off the shelf." It has been a major challenge to keep the cart lightweight while also making it safe for the drivers, he added.
"Most of us didn't know much about solar when we got involved," said Randall, who joined the club because he would like to one day work in the auto industry.
Seeing the car come together has made him a believer in the long-term potential of solar power, Randall said. "I see this as the future of electric cars," he said. Initially, solar panels embedded in consumer cars would only supplement their electrical needs. But as solar panels become more efficient, the contribution could be significant, he said. "This is self-produced power."
The Bridger Solar Team is raising money to fund its trip to the Formula Sun Grand Prix. Donations can be made at https://www.bridgersolarteam.com.