Enterprising engineering senior mobilizes a new team to design, build, and race a vehicle powered by the sun
Saurabh Pal, E24, grew up in Singapore, where cars are so highly regulated and expensive that they’re considered a luxury. But his penchant for tinkering with the engineering behind cars led him as a teenager to compete in remote-control car rallies (mostly against adults) with a battery-powered, radio-operated buggy. “It came as a pre-assembled kit,” he says, “but I took it fully apart and rebuilt it a few times.”
At Tufts, Pal’s fascination with innovation and design led him to found the Solar Vehicle Project last year. The team is designing a solar-powered car with high hopes of representing Tufts in the American Solar Challenge next summer, and the World Solar Challenge in Australia in 2025. These cross-country races draw college teams from all over the world.
Pal sees the project as an opportunity for Tufts students to strengthen research skills and knowledge that can advance a carbon-free future.
“Our strategy is to invest time in building expertise that can be passed between generations,” he says. “Someone entering Tufts or our team with little experience will come out knowing how to design and build something as complex as a car from scratch. We hope this will give students the confidence to step into the unknown to really try and innovate, even after college. It’s a team that may change someone’s trajectory in engineering; they may find it is what they really love to do. It’s been life-changing for me.”
The team grew out of Pal’s drive to ratchet up his mechanical engineering studies. After convincing a few of his friends about his idea, he sent an interest survey to fellow students that, to his surprise, gathered over 60 responses.
Now, with the support of Tufts President Sunil Kumar, School of Engineering Dean Kyongbum Lee, and a host of faculty advisors, team members meet regularly in Bray Lab to finesse their design while also seeking funding. To date, they’ve raised $9,000, plus materials valued at about $23,000.
“We have a lot of stepping stones ahead of us to make a car that is safe and manufacturable to compete at that level,” says Pal, “but we’re on our way.”
How did you come up with the idea of a solar car team?
I was thinking about a design project idea two summers ago when my brother suggested building a solar car. At first, I thought he was crazy! Then I joined Tufts Electric Racing and the more I learned, the more I thought it might be possible.
Another pivot point happened when I learned about the Nerd Girls [founded by Karen Panetta, professor of electrical and computer engineering and dean of graduate education for the School of Engineering] and their solar car project. While they didn’t race, their outreach inspired people and challenged gender stereotypes. They made a big impact by raising awareness.
I realized, aside from actually building a car, this team also has the potential to impact a lot of lives. We can use this potential in similar outreach events to inspire future engineers to contribute towards solving one of the world’s most pressing problems.
What’s your big-picture goal?
My main incentive is to get students thinking and innovating and building at a high level. Competitions are an incentive; they challenge you to think critically and create new innovations. But it’s not just about winning for us. We genuinely want to progress solar tech and solar cars. Our philosophy is that if someone comes to us and wants help, we have no secrets; we’re going to share everything so we think harder and innovate every time we build a car.
How are you approaching the car’s design?
We are trying to build a car that can cross Australia while using as much energy as it takes to boil a kettle of water; we don’t get much energy from the sun. In our case, though, not only do we have to design an efficient car, we also have to be efficient with our design given our limited resources.
We believe the bullet-shaped, single-driver design makes the most sense. It’s narrow, compact, and light, and at maximum speed it should reach 80 miles an hour. The car itself will accommodate just one driver at a time. It’s meant to be an experimental vehicle that can show people what we can do with solar technology should we keep innovating.
How is your team advancing solar car innovation?
Solar car competitions are putting innovation in the hands of engineering students around the world. Every competition, we see students trying crazy things. The World Solar Challenge last year saw retractable sails that propelled cars forward, solar cell shingling, new battery technologies, and even one car with a motorized wheelbase.
There is no better place where engineering students can say “I have a wild idea,” then by taking charge of a project that uses the team’s resources to experiment, innovate, and implement it.
In this year’s design, we are challenging a status quo in American solar cars that they require a roll cage, or a metal structure that surrounds the head of a driver. These are usually made from steel, so they are heavy and add weight high up on the vehicle, making it more unstable.
One would have to compensate for that by making the car wider and less aerodynamically efficient. We figured out how we can make a roll cage out of a particular aluminum alloy, and without using welds, leading to up to 50% reduction in weight, while being just as strong as steel. As far as we know, this has never been done before.
What new things are you learning?
When I got into the project, I started becoming a better engineer in almost every way. The whole point of mechanical engineering is to use your brain to make physical things. You need to create and this project—to create a whole car—has been pushing my design and creation skills to its limit.
But I’m also learning the entrepreneurial side of engineering. We’re calling up companies to ask: “Hey, we have this cool project. Would you be willing to invest in us?” When I talk with professors about what we’re trying to do, they say: “This sounds like a startup.” And they’re right, it really is.