UC Berkeley solar-powered-car team works into the night months before next race

Anthony Bongco/Staff
The CalSol team keeps Impulse, its previous model, at the Richmond Field Station. Impulse took fourth place at the 2012 American Solar Challenge — a race from Texas to Minnesota — and the team hopes to beat that result in the 2014 competition with its new model, Zephyr.

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RICHMOND — At 2 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, while many UC Berkeley students gathered to watch the Cal-Arizona football game, about 40 of their peers crowded around a silver UFO-like vehicle in the middle of a field in Richmond.

The vehicle, Zephyr, is the entirely solar-powered creation of CalSol, a UC Berkeley undergraduate group that designs, builds and races such cars. Although the team will not compete again until summer, its members have been hard at work for about a year and a half on the contraption, which harvests energy from sunlight using solar cells.

The roughly 60-member team comes together for 12-hour Saturday workdays at the university-owned Richmond Field Station, with members occasionally spending the night in one of their three work warehouses. Students in CalSol also work well into the evening on weeknights, building the car that will compete in July in the 2014 American Solar Challenge, a solar-powered-car race from Texas to Minnesota.

“We do the stuff at home, anywhere and everywhere,” said junior Derek Chou, the team’s mechanical lead. “There’s a very high chance that somebody is working on some part of the car every single day. We’re on that one upstroke where you’re going to suddenly see a lot of things appear.”

The team members attribute their dedication in part to CalSol’s small budget — about $300,000 from the campus and private sponsors, in comparison to other teams that receive more than $2 million — as it forces them to build most of the car’s parts themselves instead of outsourcing the construction to specialized companies.

This means the students develop skills they normally wouldn’t have and are more knowledgeable about the mechanics of their car,  Chou said.

“It’s a true testament to the skill and ingenuity of the Berkeley students to be able to do what they do and be competitive with a relatively small budget,” said George Johnson, UC Berkeley mechanical engineering professor and CalSol’s faculty adviser. “It’s frustrating for them, palling around with groups that have a lot more support than they do, but that’s the nature of the beast at Berkeley — we have a good budget, but it’s not all that it could be.”

Students in CalSol also believe their success stems from their complete independence from rigid and structured direction. The team is run and managed entirely by students and is almost entirely composed of undergraduates interested in learning a trade.

“The education in CalSol is very democratic,” said junior and team member Lydia Zdeb. “We have a great diffusion of knowledge. If you need to learn something, then there’s someone who can inevitably teach it to you, and it just spreads like wildfire. Everyone brings something to it because everybody knows something.”

The last race the CalSol team participated in was the 2012 American Solar Challenge. The group placed fourth of the 18 teams in the race, a result that surprised most of the members at the time because their car, Impulse, had been damaged in a previous race.

The team still has months to complete Zephyr, but instead of moving at a slow and steady pace, CalSol has been drive to work faster and harder than usual by its members’ excitement. They are hoping to have Zephyr operable and ready to be driven by the end of winter break, according to project manager and senior Brian Graf.

“We were very invigorated to try to build a car that will not just make a trophy finish to third but will try to push for second or first place,” Graf said. “Our design changes (for Zephyr) have made significant improvements.”

CalSol enters competitions every one to two years and competes with both nearby colleges and those from other continents. The students rarely compete with Stanford University’s team, however, as the two groups rarely enter the same competitions.

In fact, between 1996 and 2001, students from the two schools came together to jointly compete as Team California. Since then, the two teams have remained close, frequently bouncing questions and ideas off of one another.

This friendly feedback is common in the realm of solar-powered car competition, said junior and team lead Min Ju Lee.

“We occasionally get questions from other solar teams asking for help, but we like it,” Lee said. “It’s great that they look up to us, and we personally don’t mind giving other people help if we can give it to them. The solar-car community across the world is just really friendly.”

CalSol members pride themselves on being inclusive and close-knit. While the team includes students pursuing a variety of majors, including those in the humanities and social sciences, the students often take classes together and find their friend groups dominated by others in CalSol.

According to Graf, the members of CalSol bond over their obsession with seeing tangible results rather than meaningless equations on a piece of paper.

“I know mechanical engineers who graduated never having built anything, not knowing how to bolt things together or how to use a wrench,” Graf said. “They’re so theoretical that they’re not even engineers anymore. It’s that being able to get your hands dirty — that’s something CalSol provides that UC Berkeley does not.”

Claire Chiara covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @claireechiara.