JACKSONVILLE — After graduating from St. Mary's School in Medford only two years ago, Rachel Batzer has found herself on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Solar Electric Vehicle Team, shaping a sleek car that in October will compete in Australia's prestigious World Solar Challenge.
Relaxing at her Jacksonville home after taking part in a Boston-to-Los Angeles tour with "Eleanor," the 11th solar vehicle MIT students have assembled since 1985, Batzer says, "It's pretty exciting what they let undergraduates do, being in charge of their own project instead of doing parts of some projects for a graduate student or company."
The objective of the longtime solar car tradition at MIT, aside from providing a space for advanced, hands-on mechanical engineering, is to come up with technologies and research that can be filtered down to the transportation industry, where energy-saving advances can reduce the carbon footprint, says Batzer.
The breathtakingly svelte car is built with a lightweight carbon fiber shell (430 pounds), it's aerodynamic (one-fifth the drag of an ordinary car, greatly reducing energy use), and it has a strong, lightweight chromalloy chassis. It is powered entirely by solar energy, absorbed by six square meters of solar cells that cost $50,000 and are stored in 600 lithium-ion battery cells.
It holds one person and has no extras, such as a sound system or external mirrors. It has three wheels, two in the front for steering, one in the back with a hub motor that generates energy from the car's motion. The brakes are regenerative, storing energy from deceleration, Batzer says.
The car cost $300,000, funding for which comes from sponsors who are happy to have their names emblazoned on the side of the vehicle. They include General Motors, Tektronix, 3M, Panasonic, which donates the batteries, and Ford, which just gave MIT $40,000 worth of wind tunnel time.
Success at the Panasonic World Solar Challenge in Australia enables the team to attract more sponsors. The 2,000-mile race from Darwin to Adelaide — considered the Super Bowl of solar-electric vehicles — takes place Oct. 25-31.
In its engineering, the Solar Electric Vehicle Team focuses heavily on reducing drag with an aerodynamic body, something the transportation industry virtually ignores, says Batzer, noting that the outside mirror on a typical car creates more drag than MIT's whole solar car.
"Seventy percent of energy loss at highway speed is drag," she says. "Aerodynamic technology is very important, but it's not important to the car industry."
To gain the basic knowledge needed to work on such an advanced project, Batzer takes a full load of MIT classes with such names as Thermal Fluids Engineering II, Design Manufacturing and Numerical Computation for Mechanical Engineering.
At nights, weekends and vacations, Batzer says she and her team members do what they enjoy most — work on Eleanor, which, with a bit of irony, was named after the roaring muscle car in "Gone in 60 Seconds."
As she did in the cross-country jaunt, where SEVT visited sponsors, museums and schools, Batzer will drive the chase car with the team's supplies across Australia. SEVT members have no business reps and must do everything themselves, including packing up the car for the boat trip to Australia.
In a letter to sponsors, MIT President Susan Hockfield said SEVT students are "pushing the envelope of science and engineering."
"Now, more than ever, there is a need for innovation and excellence in fields that will help solve the world's energy challenge," Hockfield wrote.
In SEVT, Hockfield added, "students learn about teamwork, develop engineering intuition, manage projects from inception to completion and reach out to the community, (preparing them) to be trustworthy teammates, skillful engineers, adept managers and, most importantly, committed citizens of the world."
Batzer says she picked up the thirst for engineering from her father, local contractor Andy Batzer, one of five sons to follow their father, Jack Batzer, into that business.
"How can I not feel proud of what she's doing?" said Andy Batzer. "MIT is quite a hard school to get into and she's making the most of it."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.