Brain power.

Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

For Emma Babcock and Ashley Hayes, the ship they named Black Death seemed to lurch from one reef to the next.

The first big surprise was that the ship they had designed didn't actually float. "It was way too heavy," Emma said. And they hadn't even yet put the confetti-firing cannon on it.

Time for a redesign. Emma and Ashley decided to turn it into a land ship and installed wheels.

Next problem: The two girls hooked up their ship's motor to the solar panel that was supposed to power those wheels, flipped the switch - and nothing happened.

There had been a slight miscalculation of the energy requirements for the Black Death, the pair realized.

"It takes 1,000 milliamps to go," explained Emma, an assured 13-year-old who doesn't settle for much less in school than A-pluses. "And we figured out that the solar panel only powers 20 milliamps. We were, like, totally stuck."

Emma and Ashley's solar-powered ship - well, it's a car, strictly speaking - was one of 145 entries in the annual Eugene Water & Electric Board Solar Car Race, which was held Saturday at Cal Young Middle school in Eugene.

The competition invited middle schoolers from the Eugene, Springfield and Bethel school districts to build small solar-powered model cars and compete in one of four categories: speed, hill climb, science concept car and art concept car. Students had to use little solar panels and electric motors supplied by EWEB but could add other components as they wished.

Emma and Ashley, who realized they would need at least 49 more of the solar cells to make their ship move, got past the not-running part when a technologically inclined older friend assessed the problem and suggested an alternative course.

Instead of buying a whole bunch more solar cells, besides the one EWEB supplied, the friend suggested, why not add a rechargeable battery to the circuit? The ship could sit out in the sun all day and store power, and then would be able to sail.

This quickly became a feature, not a flaw. "After all," Emma explained, "you don't want a solar car that, when it gets dark out, you can't drive it." A couple of rechargeable penlight batteries and one small diode later, the "Black Death" was moving under its own stored solar energy.

The final bad surprise came when they arrived at the competition Saturday morning.

Somehow Emma and Ashley had missed the part in the rules that said all entries, including art cars, which was the category they figured on entering, had to fit within a box measuring 60 centimeters by 30 centimeters by 30 centimeters (that's about two feet by one foot by one foot, for English measurement holdouts).

The masts of the Black Death stuck up almost 30 centimeters above the top of the box.

"And we didn't bring a saw," Emma said later.

The two girls found some other tools and, on the spot, lopped a foot from the masts and glued the solar panel back into place with hot glue.

As Emma and Ashley demonstrated the "Black Death" and explained its auxiliary rechargeable battery system at a pre-competition inspection, the impressed judges suggested entering it in the science concept category.

They did.

When judging time came, a panel of University of Oregon physics students examined the science concept cars, talked to the designers and watched a demonstration of the cars' ability to move under their own power.

Emma sold her concept like an excited inventor to a group of venture capitalists. "What if you were able to make your car go at night time, too?" she said.

"Do you think it will run now?" a judge asked. "Do you guys want to test it?"

Emma set the little ship on the gymnasium floor and flipped a switch on its popsicle-stick helm. The Black Death plowed with confidence across the hardwood sea.

An hour later, the official results were in.

Emma and Ashley took first place in the science concept category. Emma's award, selected from a prize table, was a paper-making kit; Ashley chose a $10 Subway certificate.

Other first-place winners at the competition were Nathalie Marx, Roosevelt Middle School, in the hill climb; the team of Katie Aley, Anna Hiatt, Brielle Stanley and Avery Bernardo, Kennedy Middle School, for their art concept car, and the team of Benjamin Liu-May, Naomi Debacker and Kanani Almeida, Spencer Butte Middle School, in the speed competition.

The car named "The Hammerhead" from Shasta Middle School won the design award.

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