Illini solar car team starts race in Australia

Heather Coit

The Illini Solar Car team is making a return to competition after a 20-year hiatus. The solar-powered car Argo is in Australia for the 2017 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. The teams began the race in Darwin on October 8 and will end in Adelaide a week later.

The maiden voyage for Argo is no small task. Bridgestone is an endurance challenge where teams from 21 countries test their vehicles across 1,800 miles of the Australian Outback. 

For Jye Sze Lee, co-founder of the Illini Solar Car team, the need for endurance has been key to reaching each stage of Argo’s journey. 

 Argo strapped down on a trailer on the way to Darwin from Melbourne.
Argo strapped down on a trailer on the way to Darwin from Melbourne.

Lee and her team are driving in the less competitive Adventure Class, which allows teams meeting exact safety standards but not necessarily all the latest requirements. 

Two drivers will take turns every few hours to drive the solar car. When the race ends each day at 5 p.m., the team will camp with the drivers and start all over again the next day. 

“The rules actually restrict the hours that each driver can drive continuously to prevent fatigue,” Lee said. “It is also very hot in the car as Argo doesn’t have A/C to save weight.” 

Leading up to the race the team kept busy. They logged 2,500 miles by driving from Melbourne to Darwin through the Outback. 

The car arrived in Australia on September 9 after being shipped by boat.

“Boats take three weeks to three months to travel from the USA to Australia depending on which route they take,” Lee said. “We ended up letting three different companies be in charge of different parts of the shipping process in order to meet the criteria.”   

Challenges aside, Lee wouldn’t have it any other way. The co-founder said learning how to raise funds and resources, working with Illinois students and faculty to build Argo, and finally bringing the solar car to Australia made the experience worth it. 

“I can’t think of anything else that is more rewarding.” 

Taken in the garage in the Hidden Valley in Darwin.
Taken in the garage in the Hidden Valley in Darwin.

Only 12 members are in Australia, including Lee, because remaining members are already focused on making the required design changes for next summer’s American Solar Challenge, according to Philpott. Lee added that the next challenge will give other team members who didn’t make it to Australia a chance to have race experience. 

It has been a long road for Argo. Lee and Chee Sim Tan were just freshmen when they approached Mike Philpott, emeritus associate professor of mechanical science and engineering, in his ME170 CAD class in the fall of 2014. The undergrads learned there hadn’t been a solar car team on campus since 1997. 
“Undeterred, they ended up starting a new team with a goal of being ready to compete within a couple of years,” said Philpott. “Starting from scratch, the design of a new solar car racer began along with the huge task of fundraising and team formation.” 

Their efforts paid off with the creation of today’s Illini Solar Car team, which boasts about 50 active members from 10 areas of study and is one of seven teams from the U.S. at Bridgestone. 

A grant from Ameren Illinois helped get Argo to Australia, and sponsorships from the Student Sustainability, the ECE Department, 3M, and Bay Area Circuits.

The team members who made the trip to Australia are: 

  • Jye Sze Lee, MechSE
  • Amalia Dungey, ECE
  • Derek Chou, ECE graduate/research assistant 
  • Jenny Chu, MechSE
  • Patric Liu, ISE
  • Mark Kraman, ECE
  • Byron Hopps, ECE
  • Tim Wong, ECE
  • Joel Khristy, AE
  • Naman Jindal, MechSE
  • Gulai Shen, MechSE
  • James Wyeth, ECE