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High school students built solar-powered vehicles for an annual competition

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A few decades back, a high school physics teacher in Texas observed that his kids weren't all that engaged, so he invented the Solar Car Challenge, an event where high school students build vehicles fueled by the sun and drive them long distances. Last week, six teams attempted a drive starting in Texas. Member station KQED's Katherine Monahan caught up with contestants and reports they faced a lot of challenges.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Let's test the brakes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR WHIRRING)

KATHERINE MONAHAN, BYLINE: Meet the Palo Alto High School solar car team, a dozen teenagers working on the car they call The Beast.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR WHIRRING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Laughter).

MONAHAN: A year ago, none of these kids had done anything like this. And then they heard about this challenge and learned how to be engineers.

ALICE JAMBON: We learned welding. It's really fun. It's like hot gluing metal.

MONAHAN: Sixteen-year-old Alice Jambon is the project's build lead. The car has an open metal frame with three wheels on an ATV suspension.

JAMBON: The back was just - we just yoinked half of a motorcycle and stuck it on the back.

MONAHAN: The Beast runs best at about 20 to 30 mph, but the Solar Car Challenge is not a race. It's about innovation and whose car can drive the farthest. This year, though, it's also about who can handle the heat. After preparations and safety tests in Texas, the Palo Alto team decided to pull out. The car and the kids weren't prepared for the temperatures.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR PASSING)

MONAHAN: The Greenville Iron Lions, however, stayed in.

ANIKA ESCOBAR: So the heat doesn't really faze us much because we - we're from East Texas.

MONAHAN: Anika Escobar is team captain. The Iron Lions are Solar Car Challenge national champions, and they've been perfecting their car, Invictus, for four years. It's sleek, white, made of carbon fiber - it has almost 500 solar cells that the students soldered piece by piece. On the first day of the challenge, it broke a speed record going over 70 mph.

ESCOBAR: It was just really fun, and the scenery was beautiful. There was, like, hills and mountains.

MONAHAN: On the second day, though, it broke an axle. And then one of the brakes went out. And then the roof started coming off the car. Each time, the kids repaired the vehicle on the side of the road and just kept on moving.

ESCOBAR: Everything just fell apart on us, and we were like, well, that's just solar car racing at the end of the day.

MONAHAN: Outside, it was about 110 degrees, but inside the car, the kids said their thermometer showed up to 130 degrees. That's 130. The drivers wear ice vests and keep a CamelBak full of icy water to stay hydrated. Seventeen-year-old Sebastian Gonzalez is one of the drivers.

SEBASTIAN GONZALEZ: I'll tell you, when we get out of the car, and we feel the first breeze from outside, it feels like it's cold, and you're in the AC from how hot you get in there.

MONAHAN: The third day ended up being the last as the competition was abruptly canceled due to a COVID outbreak. The team is sad but proud of what they've accomplished.

GONZALEZ: We're all cooperating to champion for something greater than ourselves - something that, as teenagers, we - you know, some people might say we shouldn't be meddling in, but here we are.

MONAHAN: The Iron Lions were declared the winners in their division, marking their seventh solar car national championship. Next year, they're aiming to enter the World Solar Challenge in Australia with a brand-new car. For NPR News, I'm Katherine Monahan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Katherine Monahan
[Copyright 2024 KALW]