Solar car team PrISUm races sustainably and hosts outreach events


PrISUm car Prenumbra driving along route in Australia.

Cameron Karn

Iowa State’s solar car team PrISUm is researching, designing and manufacturing cars that don’t plug into a fuel pump or a power grid. Their cars are powered completely independently by harvesting energy from the sun.

Founded in 1989, PrISUm competes in solar car competitions around the world. The two main competitions are the American Solar Challenge (ASC), a long distance rally event hosted every other year, and the Formula Sun Grand Prix (FSGP), an annual track race. This year, the team is looking forward to competing in both events with their new car named Eliana. 

PrISUm has been very successful with their last two cars, Phaeton and Penumbra. Phaeton was a car built for speed, propelling team PrISUm to an impressive third-place finish in the 2014 ASC and first place at the 2015 FSGP.

Penumbra, on the other hand, was built for style and comfort. It was the team’s first attempt at a multi-occupant vehicle, which is much more complicated to design due to the increased size and weight. It had a striking appearance and featured a functional hatchback, providing storage space large enough to carry a bicycle.

“The main mission with Penumbra was going out and representing Iowa and the United States in the Word Solar Challenge, which is something only a handful of teams have been able to do,” said Brandon Steffensmeier, PrISUm’s project director.

For the first time, the team took the car to Australia in 2017 for Bridgestone’s World Solar Challenge and traveled over 1,800 miles around the continent. As one of only three cars from the United States, PrISUm placed fourth in the practicality category amongst 28 competitors from around the globe.

Outside of competition, PrISUm hosts and attends many outreach events across Iowa to show off the car and to encourage young students considering the science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

“Younger kids think it’s amazing, and they start coming up with crazy ideas, and they start designing their own solar cars and send them to us in letters,” Steffensmeier said. “To me, it’s very satisfying to see the wheels turning at such a young age.”

Sun Run is one of the largest outreach events hosted by PrISUm, where the team drives the car around the entire state of Iowa to attend 4-H events, visit schools and visit their sponsors. In the past few years, they have visited all 99 counties in Iowa, spanning a time period of about three weeks. 

PrISUm will be revealing the details on their newest creation, Eliana, to the public at their unveil and 30th anniversary event at the Iowa State Alumni Center on June 5. They will also be attending the Iowa State’s Student Innovation Center ribbon cutting event on April 17.

Students who are interested in joining PrISUm can contact Brandon Steffensmeier at his email [email protected]. They are always looking for new members in any field to help with the many facets of the team.