Engineering education hits the highway with Oregon State’s solar race car team

By Linda Rae
Some readers may recall from last year when I wrote that “Engineering Education is Tough And Needs to Stay That Way.” This year, I’d like to expand a little on that theme of the importance of engineering education and express my admiration for a group who are taking lessons learned in the classroom and applying them to the challenges of fielding a solar vehicle race car. Members of Oregon State University’s Solar Vehicle Team (OSUSVT), made up of students, staff, and faculty members, have designed and built a number of solar-powered race cars to compete in the recent American Solar Challenge.

I’ve long been a firm believer that electronics industry leaders should encourage and support the next generation of electrical engineers, and Keithley has provided test and measurement instrumentation to a number of college solar vehicle race teams over the years. This year, we were delighted to contribute to OSUSVT’s efforts by donating a Model 2440 5A SourceMeter® Source Measurement Unit (SMU) Instrument, which the students used to analyze and troubleshoot the solar modules they’ve designed for their vehicle.

The team developed a soldering, testing, and laminating procedure to produce flexible, lightweight solar modules based on mono-crystalline solar cells. To maximize vehicle performance, they required parametric data on each module to arrange sub-arrays on the car in the most efficient manner. The Keithley SMU let them characterize each module’s overall power output and maximum power point current using an I-V curve tracing technique. Students were able to gather accurate data on the performance of each module quickly and make side-by-side comparisons easily. Each module was characterized both before and after lamination, and the data obtained was used in troubleshooting problems such as shorted cells and cracked cells. In addition, this data was employed in current matching in the sub-arrays, as well in projecting the output of the vehicle’s entire solar array.

Kathy Han, the team’s manager notes, “Before we had access to Keithley’s SourceMeter Instrument, we had problems with one of our previous solar arrays that used solar cells that had been laser-cut from the front side, which we now know produces some melting of the p/n junction. This caused internal shorts and increased internal resistance in the cells. The Model 2440 made it possible to detect problems that simply weren’t detectable before and to match solar cells better. Because of Keithley’s generous donation, this year’s vehicle has 50 percent higher power output (900W instead of 600W) than last year’s.”

The Oregon State University Solar Vehicle Team finished in sixth place in the American Solar Challenge and fifth place in the Formula Sun Grand Prix. I hope you’ll join me in congratulating them, as well as all the future engineers who participated in the American Solar Challenge. To see pictures of the team and to read a white paper about how the students used the Model 2440 SourceMeter Instrument, visit http://www.keithley.com/data?asset=56996. I also encourage you to share your ideas in the comments section about how industry can help to support tomorrow’s electrical engineers while they’re still pursuing their education.
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