SCRTC Students Build Solar Vehicle

Kale Sapiel, Dylan Korasadowicz and Shane DelMonaco designed and built a fully functional solar vehicle. (Photo by Lura Jackson)

By Lura Jackson

 

What if you had a vehicle that offered virtually infinite gas mileage and no pollution? Three students – Kale Sapiel, Dylan Korasadowicz and Shane DelMonaco – of St. Croix Regional Technical Center have come a step closer to realizing that dream as part of their work in Jon Bragdon’s Computer and Electrical Technology class. The students, each of which also attend Calais High School, designed and built a fully-functional solar-powered vehicle prototype for approximately $800, handily demonstrating what is possible with adequate knowledge, determination and support.

The three-wheeled vehicle uses a standard adult tricycle frame that the students purchased off the shelf. From there, the vehicle was heavily modified to accommodate four solar panels, a motor mounted to the front wheel, and an enclosed shelter holding a series of batteries and two computers – all of which was carefully thought out and designed by the students themselves. To attach the panels to the frame, the students requested the help of welding student Zach Goodwin who performed intricate advanced aluminum welding, making it a fully collaborative effort.  

“There were no ready-made plans, no instruction, no kit,” Bragdon explained. “So, it’s a been a process of figuring out.” The students spent the first half of their school year learning the fundamentals of electricity and electrical physics, a task they accomplished primarily through lab work. After a primer on computer technology, they began designing the vehicle itself.

The four solar panels provide up to 140 watts of energy in full sunlight. “The energy that we’re getting from the panels charges the battery,” said Sapiel. The vehicle houses three 12-volt batteries wired in a series, which in turn powers the motor. The motor is capable of producing up to 500 watts, or 2/3 of a horsepower. “It’s a sophisticated project,” Bragdon said. “The two computer systems have to do their own thing and communicate with one another. That adds layers of technical complexity.”

Most of the problems commonly cited with solar power are related to efficiency in low sun and the storage of energy, but when the students built the vehicle they saw how the renewable energy worked in practice. When a partial cloud cover obscures the sun, the solar panels operate at about 50 percent capacity, continuing to produce a steady stream of energy for the battery. The students have been unable to deplete the battery beyond half of its storage thus far, even after a full day of having dozens of riders taking it up and down the hill behind the school. “On paper, if you don’t pedal, you should be able to go for three to four hours [without added sunlight],” Bragdon said. If you pedal, or if the sun is shining, “it’s a whole different kettle of fish,” he said, explaining how it would effectively operate indefinitely in the right conditions.

Pedaling the vehicle extends the life of the battery’s charge, but no pedaling is necessary to make it move forward. The thrust is completely controlled by a throttle located on the handlebars. The vehicle quickly accelerates to a steady 16 mph on flat ground with no pedaling, reaching up to 20 mph when pedaling is incorporated.

While there are still some finishing touches to be added – including Dylan Korasadowicz’s work to build a carefully-angled, small dashboard to house the instrumentation, something he is completing in Jerry James’s Building Trades class – the vehicle is fully operational at this time. Even still, neither the students nor Bragdon think of it as being complete. “Like all inventions and all R and D projects, there isn’t any clear definition of when you’re done, because you keep thinking of things to add and problems to solve,” Bragdon said. Appropriately, when Sapiel returns next year, he may be investigating potential additions that will enhance the vehicle’s overall efficiency.

 

For each of the students – Sapiel, Korasadowicz and DelMonaco – this was their first year in Bragdon’s class. The students, who are in the 11th, 10th and 9th grades respectively, have each gained significant hands-on experience as a result of the project. “The best thing about a project like this is that it lets kids know they can do it themselves,” Bragdon said, emphasizing the self-driving nature of his class. “This is evidence that Washington County soil produces really good kids. When learning is fun, when you’re interested and engaged, you learn the best.”