Team Sunergy talks racing, sustainable energy and academia

BOONE - Team Sunergy, Appalachian State University's solar car team, will be traveling to Pittsburgh, PA next week to compete for the first time in the Formula Sun Grand Prix. The team is uniquely cross-pollinated by 22 students from several departments including Sustainable Technology, Engineering Physics, Interior Design, Industrial Design, Sustainable Design, Computer Sciences and Marketing, to build and compete in the race for the first time this year.

ShootOut_June28The College of Arts and Sciences recently sat down with Team Sunergy advisors, Dr. Jeremy Ferrell from the Department of Sustainable Technology and the Built Environment, and Brad Johnson, professor in Engineering Physics and the Physics & Astronomy Graduate Coordinator, to discuss the interdisciplinary aspects of Team Sunergy, NASCAR, the future of Team Sunergy, as well as the research, development and work lead by Appalachian students for Apperion, the 2016 solar vehicle.

Team Sunergy will be on campus during the final session of the Appalachian Energy Summit, Wednesday, July 20th, at 1pm, for a final send off before the team travels to Pittsburgh. This event is open to the public.

Dr. Jeremy Ferrell: Ok, so my name is Jeremy Ferrell. I am a professor here in Sustainable Technology, and I am the Program Coordinator for Sustainable Technology, formerly called Appropriate Technology. We largely deal with renewable energy systems, but we focus on what we consider technologies that promote sustainability in a larger sense. My background is actually in biosystems engineering, and I did my research on biofuels. I've been interested in transportation for over 10 years now, largely focused on liquid fuels, and have been interested in solar as well, having worked in remote areas with the solar technology.

A couple of years ago Dan Blakeley, a student who is double majoring in both Appropriate Technology and Engineering Physics, approached me about a solar vehicle team, and asked me if I was interested in being an adviser. I said, "Well, I am interested but I don't have any experience with solar vehicles, my background has been in a different side of transportation, but you know I will be happy to support you." That same semester we received $25,000 from the Office of Sustainability, and we also applied and were awarded money from REI (Renewal Energy Initiative). I wrote and received a GRAM, Graduate Research Assistant Mentorship program, which Dan is currently funded through.

So, Dan came to me my first semester on faculty, which was fall of 2014, and that's when things really started moving. He was a Technology Education major, and did accelerated admissions, and moved straight into the Master's in Appropriate Technology in this department, and then found out how cool it was over in Engineering Physics, and how you can combine these and really get a lot out of it. We're really supporting students to do that, especially with this project because it's such a nice blend of the two disciplines.
The other faculty member who is not here is Chris Tolbert. He teaches adjunct in this department. He is a full-time high school teacher down in Wilkes County. He teaches at West Wilkes High School, and he started their electric vehicle team around ten years ago. So he's been doing it a long time. He's great, and he's just a huge asset for our team. So he's kind of like the coach. The three of us have these nice roles, Brad knows the electronic side really well. Chris is kind of like the coach and has a mechanical engineering background. I have wound up in a more administrative role. It's all good and has worked out organically.

Brad Johnson: Yeah, we need to give Chris lots of credit. So, my background is in electronics and automation. A lot of the students come through the Engineering Physics program, and some of the undergraduates take the dual-listed courses, and they needed that to be able to move forward with the project. They kept coming to me with questions and eventually they just asked me to be an advisor, because I was spending a lot of time helping them. That's how I got involved with the project, but it was, like Jeremy said, it was all Dan leading. I'm just supporting him essentially. He's the leader of the project, maybe Chris too. I'm just trying to help them be successful.

Jeremy: There is a nice history here of student lead projects at Appalachian, where students say, "We wanna do this!" and they find some faculty to support them, and then they take off. You know, I don't think there is anybody on this campus who can troubleshoot the kind of problems the team deals with on the car...Brad's probably the closest one, who can get in there and troubleshoot and figure things out. I mean, they are trailblazing. They are adapting automotive technologies by putting things together in new ways. We are essentially supporting them, and letting them really have this experience, and trying to keep the overall project moving.

Dan reports to me, he's also my GA. He's super organized, very mature 27-28 years old...

Brad: Yeah, he really feels equivalent working with another professor. He's an amazing student!

Jeremy: He has a really interesting background; he had some leadership roles in the Army, he's been on multiple tours. He's had an amazing experience, that kind of prepared him for most of, for really just about anything, and he's really taken to this leadership role. There has been other students who have risen up too, like Duvey Rudow. He's in Accelerated Physics Engineering student, and he's really taken a lead role.

We have these teams where you have Dan as the Project Director, Duvey as the Assistant Project Director. They have an electrical team, a Director and an Assistant Director, and then they have a mechanical team, Director and Assistant Director. They have a business team, because this is an expensive project, everything about it. These batteries are thousands of dollars. These individual parts need to be custom made. Everything about this is one-off, one of a kind, you know, so there is a finance team. We've worked with communications, we've had two senior level PR classes work with us to do campaigns. We've really worked to get out of our department silos on this one, and I think this is an awesome example of it.

Brad: I think it has to be that way too since we're not an engineering school. For this project at this university to be successful, you need to combine all of our resources.

Jeremy: Typically at the big schools like MIT, Stanford, the folks we are competing against, they have mechanical engineering and aerospace, which are usually the two who head up this kind of program, maybe some electrical, as well. But they'll get a whole semester worth of credit to work on a solar car project.

CAS: And so, this is the second year that the car has been developed? For this year was it developed from scratch or was it based off of the car from last year?

Jeremy: So last year in June, late May or early June, we received a donation from Iowa State, and that donation allowed us to be where we are today. They are kind of like our big brother/big sister school in solar car racing. They are awesome. I mean, you can imagine Iowa is the place to do solar car racing, right? (laughs) So they donated the old shell of their vehicle, which is our current car, and so that is the mold right and the solar array. We built the suspension and all of the electrical management system, all the batteries, all of that was designed and built by our students last year.

Brad: Yeah, the machinist and the instrument maker, Mike Hughes and Dan Green, did the suspension last year.

Jeremy: Right, right, so they designed these in a CAD drawing program and then manufactured them over there...

Brad: Yeah, and they like racing, cars, and so this is right up their alley.

Jeremy: There is a unique blend though with this thing, because we are talking about racing but we're talking about no gasoline, no fuel, quiet, you know, it's clean. It's an interesting combination, because we have this whole sustainability philosophy woven into racing. This is something you don't typically associate with it, and we really hope going forward to get a line with Nascar.

Brad: Well this is "Nascar Country," too!

Jeremy: Nascar is in our backyard, you know, it evolved here. What I know about Nascar now is they are losing their younger audience. They are looking for ways to reinvigorate it, and we've reached out to them and we're going to do another event (we did an event in earlier in June and we're gonna do another one this fall). Our goal is to be like "Hey, maybe someone would be willing to adopt this project!" The big schools like Iowa State, Michigan, and the others, they essentially have, a budget of a .25 million dollars, 200K plus. Michigan's budget is over a million dollars a year to build a car, so if this is going to be sustained it's going to need some kind of level of support like that. We've done an amazing job raising money so far, but to really do this, and kind of have a continuing program I think Nascar is a good avenue to explore.

CAS: So, has there been any technology that is outside of your expertise, like something that you have had to makeup or create specifically for this project?

Brad: I would imagine the suspension would be definitely out of everyone's expertise.

Jeremy: Yeah, it was definitely a custom design.

Brad: I mean the electrical, that's within my expertise but it's, you know, it's different. It's not a normal designed battery controller you know! So you have to learn new things with that...

Jeremy: Yeah, one of the ways that we figured that we can really be additive to this, is to do research. There is a lot of instrumentation about how the car has been performing in real time. We have this telemetry system where you can report all this information back to a central place and so, just like you always want to know where the needle is on your gas tank, you always want to know what the state of the charge is on your battery, and how you drive affects that. There's all this information we're trying to gather, and there's a lot of troubleshooting. They're using OBD-II (On-Board Diagnostics System), which is an automotive standard kind of communications protocol. They're using that, but then they are combining it with open-source microcontrollers, which is really new and innovative. There's a lot of things that are happening in that space that are pretty cool. I don't think there is anybody here that can just tell you exactly how to do it. I know some of the students have learned new software programs to do drawings that can be 3D rendered essentially. From a learning point, from an educational point of view, I mean, this project has just been amazing.

One of the things that we're looking to do also is research grants, and how can this kind of technology, how can what we're doing translate. That's what the students who want to do this when they graduate from Appalachian want to do. They want to go work for Tesla, they want to go work for SpaceX, they want to do some kind of cool start up where they are putting solar panels on cars or lightweighting or doing something interesting with controls and automation.

Brad: Right, and right now they are working for free, so it would be nice to bring in some some money, grant money, and support them to make this more feasible. A positive is it's such a resume builder for the students, to have this experience, and to learn new software programs...In Chris Tolbert's class they had to learn the aerodynamics, and the students found the free software, and drew the drawings of the cars and that's what they...

Jeremy: Yeah they simulated a wind tunnel, and tested all the drag co-efficients...

CAS: They are really going outside of the classroom?

Jeremy: Yeah, absolutely.

Brad: They have to.

Jeremy: Yeah, it's really all you can dream that academia would do for students, to provide them some kind of opportunity like this, and let them run with it. It all goes back to the student leadership right now, but that's going to be another challenge, are other students going to rise to the occasion? I think they can.

CAS: How are the students coming into the project? Are they being recruited by other students, or are you both recruiting?

Brad: In my class, Dan Blakeley and Pedro Franco, Pedro is in charge of the electrical team, came up in my class and recruited some of the Physics & Astronomy students.

Jeremy: Yeah, it's been recruiting. They have interest meetings. They have team meetings. They do outreach. I mean, we're talking about, you know, a dozen or more super engaged students. I think academically they all do really well, but certainly they are doing a lot out of the classroom. They go and they table, and they fundraise and they do events. They drove the car around downtown Boone at the last art crawl, and so they really put themselves out there. I think it's got to the point where people are coming to the team, saying "Oh, I heard about it," or "I've seen the car." So you know, we're kind of looking at certain types of people now to get involved, like the Department of Applied Design, you know the industrial designers would be great at building the next car...I think it's kind of evolved alright, as people graduate we're wondering who's going to fill the electrical director role, and what not...

CAS: So what do you think your chances are for winning the race?

Everyone: *Laughs*

Jeremy: Last year we went to the race but we didn't have a car though that was ready to compete, so this is really our first year. I think a good goal should be to get a certain number of miles...

Brad: I think just competing all three days would be good.

Jeremy: Competing all three days, getting the car on the track everyday would be a good goal...I mean, it's an endurance race.

CAS: That's a good segway into my last question. What are the hopes for the car in the future, aside from winning the race and the competition?

Jeremy: So yeah, definitely doing really well at the competition, keeping the momentum up and then Brad mentioned, we have hopes to raise money to build a Next Generation car that is ours from scratch. That's what a group with Chris Tolbert's spring semester special topics class, they worked on the preliminary design for it.

CAS: What's a Next Generation car?

Jeremy: Well this car currently has three wheels, it's a three wheel design. Our real goal is to build a Next Generation car which is 4 wheels, that's a two seater, that's more like something you might drive one day

Brad: More practical. And the race is doing that, requiring that...

Jeremy: Yeah, the race is adopting this. They are trying to push innovation away from just raw performance. The three-wheel design is more aerodynamic, it's more of a racing vehicle. They are trying to push it more towards the automotive industry, spark some start-ups to work on this. That's what we want to do, we want to build a solar-powered two-seater coupe and then compete with that car.

You can keep up with Team Sunergy and learn more by visiting their website


Published: Jul 18, 2016 3:23pm