BLOOMINGTON — A fire severely damaged the Illinois State University solar car participating in the Formula Sun Grand Prix track competition in Austin, Texas, preventing the ISU solar car team from competing in the American Solar Challenge road race that began Monday.
"It's devastating," said team President Sarah Noll, an ISU graduate student in applied economics. "The team (of eight students) spent so much of our lives on this in the last year for so little to come out of it."
No one was injured in the fire that happened overnight Friday in a garage. Three other cars were in the garage but sustained only water damage from the sprinkler system and were able to begin the road race, Noll said as she and other students drove back to Normal.
"We're not sure what caused the fire," she said. "It could have been an issue with the power source or the batteries overheating or it could have been a bad (battery) cell.
"There was very little of the car left when we got there" early Saturday, she said.
Students built the vehicle for the annual competition that began July 14 with a three-day "scrutineering," which makes sure cars meet race requirements and are road-worthy. The ISU car passed that phase, Noll said.
Thursday through Saturday was the Formula Sun Grand Prix, a track competition to make sure the cars could sustain the race from Texas to Minnesota.
Last year, the ISU team placed second in that competition. But this year's car experienced problems with its motors, Noll said.
"The motors were taking too much power from our batteries," she said.
Team members tried to increase efficiency by charging the car using an external power source. The car was being charged overnight Friday when the fire happened.
"The fire was discovered when the fire alarm and sprinkler system went off," said George Rutherford, a team faculty adviser and associate professor of physics.
ISU team members stayed until Monday to see off other teams as they began their road race from Austin to Minnesota.
"What happened was drastic enough to take us out of the competition, but this team overcame all sorts of (other) obstacles," Rutherford said. Noll noted that the team won the Fastest Slalom Award during the track competition.
"You don't wish this (fire) on anyone, but engineers and scientists need these kinds of experiences to learn," Rutherford said. "This is exactly the way life is: things break, things go wrong.
"I admire these young people for what they accomplished on a limited budget," he said.
Noll said "We'll unload and see what we can work with."
Will they compete next year?
"That's the plan," she said.