Solar-powered race cars. Yes, there is such a thing. Just ask Farris Al-Humayani, a local University of Minnesota graduate student who’s part of a team designing one.

“I lead the Controls team, the sub-team that designs the electrical systems for the car,” Al-Humayani explained, adding that he makes circuit boards for the solar car, among other tasks. 

The 2014 White Bear Lake grad is part of a non-profit organization that designs, builds, markets, finances, and races fully-sized solar-powered race cars.

The University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project (UMSVP) was founded by students in 1990. The group completed its first solar race car, Aurora I, in 1993, and has built 13 solar vehicles since, racing in more than 30 solar challenges in four countries, with considerable success. 

Al-Humayani is currently pursuing his masters degree in electrical engineering and entering his third year with the solar car project.

Their solar car races will never rival the Indy 500 or NASCAR. Unlike the Challenger Class of solar cars, the goals for the Cruiser Class are “practicality and efficiency,” Al-Humayani explained, rather than speed, which is usually somewhere in the 30s mph. And just getting to the finish line first doesn’t mean you win. More on that later. 

As stated on its website, UMSVP’s projects are administered, designed, and built by students, in an atmosphere that “teaches members about engineering and business in an environment that emulates a startup company.”

Their current project is making further modifications to Eos II, slated to race in Australia in October. Al-Humayani will be one of 20 members on the race crew.

They were the first American team to compete in the Cruiser Class at the World Solar Challenge. Eos II was one of only five cruiser cars to completely finish the 2017 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge on its own power. It placed first in the Formula Sun Grand Prix and second in the 2018 American Solar Challenge. 

Al-Humayani, 23, was asked if he joined due to an affinity for cars, or for racing. He said neither was the case. “I joined because a friend told me about it.” But once there, he was quite impressed. 

He found the solar car group to be “more involved than any design group on campus, in my opinion,” because it’s similar to a start-up company. The students handle all the logistics work, which, he said, “gives us a lot of autonomy.” The team makes its own motors, a challenging task not done by many solar car teams worldwide, and constructs the car body, too, at Delta Air Lines, one of their sponsors, primarily from carbon fiber.

UMSVP, usually around 60 strong, has its own operations team, he said, which handles the business side: marketing, finance, sponsor relations, race logistics, and events, including participation in the Twin Cities Auto Show and a State Fair exhibit each year. They are also promoting “Adopt a Cell,” which gives the public a chance to donate to the project. See the end of this article for the website.  

The public is invited to view the modified Eos II when the group hosts a send-off event for the car on July 19, from 6 to 8 p.m., outdoors in the Lind Courtyard on campus.

Al-Humayani, who has never driven the car himself, said that members who want to drive are carefully vetted by the group using wireless data collected during test driving. He notes that the car gets pretty warm for the drivers due to a lack of air conditioning and that the practice routes are carefully chosen to collect accurate data.

The races are a few thousand miles long, on public roads — back roads, of course. The upcoming Australian race, Oct. 13-20, will be about 3,000 miles, from Darwin to Adelaide, on roads traversing “the harsh outback” of Australia, Al-Humayani explained. Last summer, the team raced Eos II from Nebraska to Oregon through hills and the countryside for the American Solar Challenge.

Getting to the finish line first is just one of many issues upon which entrants are scored. There’s also factors like how much of the battery’s energy capacity was used, the number of people in the car, how much their car charged from the grid, and a practicality assessment of the car by judges. The long-range goals of solar race car projects are to help develop the technology for public use of solar cars.

When solar race cars were first made, he said, only the Challenger Class existed, and the objective actually was speed, but all those cars started to look the same, like a flat shoe-box with a small compartment on top for the driver’s head to peak out. “They did not look like cars you would see on a road, so a new class of solar cars was started, which are all about practicality and efficiency, not just speed.” The boxy, speedier ones are also still made, though.

Al-Humayani, a native of Saudi Arabia, continuously moved between the United States and Saudi Arabia growing up (including six years in Florida) before arriving in White Bear Lake to start his sophomore year of high school. His mother had a sister already living here, which prompted their move. 

In high school, he got good grades, while not participating in many extracurriculars. His favorite experience was the AVID (college prep) class taught by Mrs. Bacigalupo. 

At the time, he was unsure what he wanted to do in college, and initially considered a pre-med program; otherwise, he said, in retrospect, he should have joined the robotics club. “We get a lot of students (in the solar car group) who were in robotics.” 

During two years at Wisconsin-River Falls and three years at Minnesota-Twin Cities, he switched from pre-med to electrical engineering.  His occupational goal now is to do something in electrical design, such as creating medical devices. He hopes to build a stable engineering career to both advance technology for the world and provide support for his family. 

Above all he seeks to be in a “team environment” — like the solar car club. 

To join Adopt A Cell and contribute to this project, visit:crowdfund.umn.edu/?cfpage=project&project_id=26458

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