NORMAL — Illinois State University’s solar car team members will find out this morning if a malfunctioning battery has knocked them out of the cross-country American Solar Challenge race.
The nickel metal hydride battery that powers the Mercury IV began to leak Wednesday night, triggering a hazardous-materials event in an ISU parking lot on Locust Street. A 40-by-40-foot section of the lot was cordoned off and Locust between School Street and Fell Avenue was closed from about 9:30 p.m. to about 12:30 a.m.
No one was injured, and ISU police said none of the nearby apartment buildings had to be evacuated. The bat-tery had been removed from the car for storage at the time of the incident, so the car itself was undamaged.
The car was one of 10 left in the eight-day, 1,650-mile race that started July 14 in Rochester, N.Y., and will end July 21 in St. Paul, Minn. Coincidentally for ISU’s Team Mercury, the potentially race-ending incident happened on a planned layover for the racers at their home base in Normal.
“While the fire itself was small and easily extinguished, the sad part was for the very talented group of stu-dents, faculty and staff members who poured their hearts and souls into this project,” said ISU spokesman Jay Groves.
About 10 exhausted-looking members of Team Mercury stood or sat on the pavement near the yellow police tape, contemplating their next move as emergency crews disassembled and removed the battery.
The team members said their game plan would depend on whether time, equipment and race rules would allow them to replace the battery in time.
The race teams are set to depart at 9 a.m. from Normal’s Uptown Circle on the next leg, to La Crosse, Wis.
A team member discovered the problem and alerted authorities.
As required by race rules, each car’s battery had to be removed from the car and secured in a box. While the battery was being transferred to the trunk of another car, a student noticed fumes and sparks coming from the battery.
Concern over toxic fumes prompted the hazardous-materials response.
Team Mercury ended Wednesday in sixth or seventh place, but its exact standing hadn’t been calculated yet, team members said early today.
About a dozen teams started the race.
The Mercury IV weighs 600 pounds (with driver) and can reach a top speed of 75 mph. It was built at a cost of about $45,000.