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Grand Prix starting line
January 26, 2022

A ray of sunshine: Badgerloop team transitions to solar car competition

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For over a century, engineers have dreamed of developing a vac-train, more recently called a hyperloop, in which a car or capsule zooms through a vacuum tube at high speeds with minimal wind resistance or friction. Over the last decade, big tech companies, including SpaceX and Virgin, seemed on the verge of making the hyperloop a reality, and began actively investigating the technology.

SpaceX, for one, got colleges and universities involved through its hyperloop competitions, four of which it sponsored between 2015 and 2019. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a group of motivated students took up the challenge, forming a group called Badgerloop, which earned multiple accolades in each year’s competition and placed highly in a fierce international field of participants.

But recently, the hype over the hyperloop has dimmed as technical challenges and costs have pushed the dream into the distant future. That’s why the Badgerloop team, which includes many students from the College of Engineering, is turning its expertise to another exciting project: solar-powered cars.

Nathan Berg, a December, 2021 mechanical engineering graduate and former Badgerloop president, says it took some time to realize the excitement over hyperloop was waning. In July 2019, the Badgerloop team traveled to Hawthorne, California, for the last time after SpaceX selected them to participate in Hyperloop Pod Competition IV.

After more than a year of designing and building their pod, Badgerloop team members were among all but three teams unable to compete on the test track. But, they believed, they would get another chance at the fifth competition in the summer 2020, and began working on the next iteration. The team waited to hear details about the competition, but word never came. Then came some serious setbacks.

“First the student shop [the College of Engineering Technical Education and Manufacturing Lab] flooded in February 2020,” says Berg. “And it became pretty clear that if a competition was announced for summer 2020, we wouldn’t have the time to manufacture the parts. And then obviously the pandemic started. It was a hard transition for everyone and the project fell to the side as people focused on classwork.”

When students returned to campus in fall 2020, SpaceX still had not announced a new competition, and without a goal, enthusiasm for building the next hyperloop pod started to stall. So, in February 2021, the Badgerloop executive committee made the hard decision for the organization to abandon the hyperloop competition and focus on a different project. Team members finished up their fifth pod, which they unveiled in June 2021, to complete their contracts with sponsors and provide closure to all the work that members had performed before putting their next move up to a vote.

The choice was to compete in the Formula Sun Grand Prix, part of the American Solar Challenge. For that competition, teams build a purely solar-powered car that races on a closed track. The team with the most total laps around the course over three days wins. The Grand Prix also serves as the qualifying event for the American Solar Challenge, a cross-country solar car race.

Badgerloop’s goal is to get a car ready to compete in the Grand Prix in July 2022 in Topeka, Kansas. Recently, the team recruited new members during college events and now has roughly 50 members with interests in mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, as well as a suite of operations personnel in charge of marketing, sponsorships and managing the project. New Badgerloop president Eric Udlis, a computer engineering and computer sciences major, will lead the effort in the spring 2022 semester.

This year’s goal isn’t necessarily to win the Grand Prix; just getting a car on the track will be a formidable challenge. It has taken other university teams two to four years to field their first solar cars. But Badgerloop has an advantage: Many of the components of the hyperloop pod translate to the solar car. “The solar array team is really the only new electrical team this year,” says Lucas Maddox, a junior in electrical engineering who serves as Badgerloop’s electrical director. “Fundamentally, what we were doing with the hyperloop pod was building an electric vehicle, and the solar car is an electric vehicle. So, we’re able to keep the same organizational structure.”

In general, the full Badgerloop team meets once every two weeks while the sub teams, including mechanical, electrical and operations, meet weekly. Students also usually put in several hours per week working on building their subsystems, including things like batteries, solar arrays and suspension systems. The team is also actively pursuing new sponsorships, which keep the project afloat.

While the transition away from hyperloop might have been disappointing, the Badgerloop team feels reinvigorated by the solar challenge. “We like to describe ourselves as scrappy, doing a lot with a little and working against the odds to be successful. That’s kind of a mantra we’ve got,” says Berg.