Our Project Director Volunteered for the World Solar Challenge

Australia trip helps MSU student jump-start solar car club

Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service
DECEMBER 27, 2017

Levi Allery, an electrical engineering major at Montana State University, shows design drawings of a solar-powered car that MSU's Bridger Solar Team hopes to take to races in the future. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez.

Levi Allery, an electrical engineering major at Montana State University, shows design drawings of a solar-powered car that MSU's Bridger Solar Team hopes to take to races in the future. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez.

 BOZEMAN - Most people would be surprised to encounter futuristic, sunlight-propelled cars zooming through the remote, red desert of the Australian Outback. But for Montana State University junior Levi Allery, they were the reason he went Down Under.

An electrical engineering major from Kalispell, Allery recently spent two weeks interning at the World Solar Challenge, traveling with 40 student teams as they raced their solar-powered vehicles along a nearly 2,000-mile-long route from Australia’s north coast to its south.

“These were the top teams in the world,” said Allery, who has started an MSU student group called the Bridger Solar Team to build and race the electric cars, which are checkered with miniature solar panels.

In the days prior to the Oct. 8-15 race, he got a close look at the sleek, lightweight vehicles while serving as a scrutineer - an official who inspects each team’s handiwork to ensure it meets the competition’s design standards.

“I got to touch every part, and see much more than if I were just a spectator,” he said.

After the vehicles left the starting line in Darwin, Allery followed closely behind a different one each day as an official observer.

He was following the Dutch solar team, called Nuon, when a piece of the car’s suspension broke. Nuon’s rapid repair response “was like a NASCAR team’s,” Allery said. “They were back on the road in minutes.”

“The teams that did well communicated really well,” he said. “Teamwork is huge.”

Levi Allery, center, traveled with student teams from around the world as they raced solar-powered cars across Australia's Outback during the 2017 World Solar Challenge on Oct. 8-15. Photo courtesy Levi Allery.

Levi Allery, center, traveled with student teams from around the world as they raced solar-powered cars across Australia's Outback during the 2017 World Solar Challenge on Oct. 8-15. Photo courtesy Levi Allery.

Allery and his fellow volunteers also operated as a team, keeping the race running smoothly while being initiated into the world of solar car enthusiasts and gathering knowledge that each of them would take home, said World Solar Challenge’s event director, Chris Selwood.

“We found Levi to be willing and enthusiastic,” he said. “It is great to have him as a member of this international community.”

Getting the chance to visit Australia for the race was a bit of a surprise for Allery. The opportunity was sparked by his participation in the TRIO Student Support Services program at MSU, which provides mentorship and other assistance to first-generation college students and students from other underrepresented groups.

Megkian Doyle, whose work at TRIO helps students chart their path to graduation, heard Allery talk about the World Solar Challenge and his interest in solar cars and applied to MSU’s Presidential Emerging Scholars Grant program on his behalf. Allery was one of a dozen students who received the grant last summer.

“We’re looking for things that these students wouldn’t have access to at MSU that would put them over the top,” Doyle said.

Taking time out of the semester was a challenge, said Allery, who has a half-time job repairing hot tubs in addition to his full course load. But his professors were flexible and supportive, he said.

Members of the Bridger Solar Team are working to design and build a solar-powered car that they can use to compete at races such as the 2019 Formula Sun Grand Prix in Texas. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez.

Members of the Bridger Solar Team are working to design and build a solar-powered car that they can use to compete at races such as the 2019 Formula Sun Grand Prix in Texas. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez.

In addition to starting the Bridger Solar Team, Allery has worked with faculty in the Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering to incorporate design and construction of the solar-powered cars into two of the yearlong capstone projects that engineering seniors complete as part of their graduation requirements.

“Often these things are initiated by faculty, but this one is driven by the students, and especially by Levi,” said Todd Kaiser, head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “He saw something that he wanted to do and made it happen.”

The 15-person MSU team, which consists mostly of engineering majors, hopes to compete in the 2019 Formula Sun Grand Prix, a race that will take place at a closed-loop track in Texas. That would be a significant step toward competing in the World Solar Challenge, according to Allery.

“The whole idea is that the future is looking toward solar power and electric cars,” he said. “We can learn and help to be a part of that.”

Contact: Megkian Doyle, doyle@montana.edu, 406-994-7489.