Racing the Sun: History of Apperion

How does a group of students end up building a solar car and entering it in an international, collegiate competition? It began with Dan Blakeley, an Army Ranger who was looking to the future, and who would become the leader of Team Sunergy. While in the Army, Blakely said, he and a friend would “always talk about sustainability and different programs and things we would want to do [next].” When it came time to take the next step and go to college, Blakeley chose Appalachian State University because it had a sustainability program that was interesting to him. During his senior year, he was recommended for Appalachian’s accelerated admissions program and began earning dual graduate degrees in engineering physics and appropriate technology.

Along the way, inspired to build a solar car by his sustainable transportation instructor, Chris Tolbert, he approached another of his professors, Dr. Jeremy Ferrell, assistant professor of sustainable technology in the Department of Sustainable Technology and the Built Environment. Ferrell’s area of research is biofuels, especially as related to transportation. Ferrell explained how Blakeley sought him out:

“He said, ‘I hear you have some experience in transportation.’

“I said, ‘I do – what are you interested in?’ and he said, ‘I want to build a solar-powered race car.’

“I said, ‘Well, I haven’t really done that before but I’d love to learn about it and jump in with you.’”

That was fall 2014.

Genesis of Apperion

Listen to an audio clip of Dr. Jeremy Ferrell explaining the genesis of Apperion.


Dr. Jeremy Ferrell: The seed was planted, either the spring of 2014 or maybe even the fall of 2013, in one of Chris Tolbert's classes. Chris Tolbert teaches in our department, Sustainable Technology and the Built Environment, and he teaches transportation courses and sustainable transportation courses, and now he teaches special topics devoted to this project. They kind of launched this idea of building a solar vehicle team.

It slowly evolved into what we have today. Actually, quite quickly, I think, compared to most schools. Some of these schools have been doing this for 20+ years. He came to me in my first semester on faculty in fall of 2014, and he approached me about being a faculty advisor for the team. My background is in bio-energy and biofuels for transportation. So I've really been interested in transportation and switching to lower carbon intensive fuels and decarbonizing our transportation. But Dan said, hey, let's do this with solar power. I was really intrigued and interested from the beginning and jumped on board.

The first project was to take a gas-powered golf cart and turn it into a solar-powered vehicle. That was the first thing that the team did. It was a group of three or four people that got behind that - Dan, of course, leading it from the beginning. From there we went to a conference in Dallas, Texas about solar car racing, mainly geared toward high school solar car racing - because this is the collegiate version but there is also a high school version. We went to that - that was January of 2015. In March of 2015, a group of students went up to Ann Arbor, Michigan to attend what was a mid-term meeting for American Solar Challenge. That's the organizers of this race. So, they went up to the University of Michigan - four or five of our team members - and all of the teams had cars, and they were talking about cars and what's the latest and greatest in the batteries and efficiencies and rolling resistance and aerodynamics and all of that.

A group from Iowa State approached our team and said, hey, we see that you're getting in to solar car racing. Would you like an old shell - an old solar vehicle shell - to start your program with? It was an amazing act of kindness and graciousness and really exemplifies the environment here, I think. And so, of course, we said absolutely, we would love that, to take that as a donation. So we figured out how to make it work and Dan Blakeley and Jason Baptiste drove out to Iowa at the end of May of last year, 2015, and brought the shell back in a U-Haul. They loaded it up. It was just a shell - no tires, no wheels or anything on it - and loaded it up in a U-Haul and drove it back to Boone. And they started building the battery system, all of the electronics, new suspension, new wheels, battery management, all of that. They built that last summer.

We decided that we wanted to go to the Formula Sun Gran Prix in Austin, Texas at the Circuit of the Americas and made that happen last summer, went out to Austin, brought our car there even though it wasn't ready. It was an amazing experience. We're here today because we went to Austin, Texas last year and learned how to be involved with this and how to do solar car racing. And so we spent a week at the end of July last year in Austin, Texas working on the car and that's when we really saw this collaboration and how people are willing to help you with parts or knowledge or whatever they can offer. Iowa State has been, really, our kind of our mentor, big brother, our big sister in solar car racing.

Over the following two years, Blakeley found funding and academic support to convert a golf cart from gas to solar power, build a race car prototype, and learn from everyone and every opportunity he could find. A seasoned strategist, he volunteered at the 2014 Formula Sun Grand Prix, soaking up knowledge and gaining valuable experience for future application. By 2015, he had put together a solar car team and, in addition to Dr. Ferrell, had recruited Chris Tolbert and Brad Johnson as faculty advisors. Tolbert teaches and coaches solar car development teams at the high school level in addition to his course load at Appalachian, and Johnson, a senior lecturer in the Department of Physics, advised on the electronics and automation, talking the team through flow charts and helping develop systems and processes to control the car.

In spring 2015, Iowa State offered Appalachian the shell from an older model of their car, and Apperion was born. That summer, the team took their prototype to the Formula Sun Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, to the Circuit of the Americas racetrack. In 100-plus temperatures, the team worked on its car in the blazing heat, literally sweating every detail. Mechanical issues and a lack of insurance kept them off the racetrack, but they learned from every decision they made, and had plenty of encouragement from other teams, including Iowa State University, which became Appalachian’s mentor team, and would have a tremendous role in the development of Apperion.

Motivated by the experience in Austin and encouraged by his peers at other institutions, including Iowa State, Blakeley cultivated Appalachian’s 2016 Team Sunergy. Members from the 2015 team combined with new members, and the project accelerated. In a rented bay a few miles from campus, the group built the chassis, developed the electronics, raised funds for supplies, worked with university administrators to obtain what proved to be very specialized insurance, tested, re-tested, re-tested and re-tested their race car, until they were confident they could pass the intensive “scrutineering” process at the 2016 Formula Sun Grand Prix. With a generous anonymous donation, the team was able to stay in a hotel rather than in tents on the racetrack like some of the teams, and this year, they had the funds needed to rent a mechanic’s bay. In July 2016, they loaded their car into a trailer borrowed from Tolbert along with a Crock-Pot and a refrigerator he provided to store the meals team members’ families prepared in advance. With a send-off from Chancellor Sheri N. Everts, (“Thank each of you for representing Appalachian so spectacularly and for your dedication to a more sustainable planet.”), they headed for Pittsburgh.

Send-off remarks by Sheri N. Everts

On July 20, Team Sunergy enjoyed a send-off from Chancellor Everts and attendees of the 2016 Appalachian Energy Summit.


Chancellor Sheri N. Everts: It brings me great pride to recognize the dedicated advisors and students on Team Sunergy and to wish them well as they represent Appalachian at the Formula Sun Grand Prix in Pennsylvania. It is with a bit of extra pride I share our team is the only team from North Carolina and one of only two teams in the South. This team’s work on the solar vehicle Apperion* represents the bold, confident, and pioneering attitude that so perfectly represents our campus and its vision to build a brighter future.

Congratulations on your great accomplishments so far and I join with the campus community in wishing you continued success in Pennsylvania and in qualifying for the American Solar Challenge.

Thank each of you for representing Appalachian so spectacularly and for your dedication to a more sustainable planet.

*pronunciation note: [App-EER-ee-yun]


The generosity of private donors allowed Team Sunergy to design and build a high-performance solar vehicle and travel it to an international competition. In less than two years, they were holding their own in a competition that included world-renowned engineering schools. Their plans for the future include a new design that will set the standard for road-ready, commuter vehicles. Your support can make this happen!


Web work by Pete Montaldi and Derek Wycoff. Video production by Garrett Ford. Photography by Marie Freeman, with additional images by Bailey Winecoff and Dr. Lee Ball. Audio production by Dave Blanks. Writing by Megan Hayes and Elisabeth Wall. Art by Jim Fleri. Editing by Linda Coutant. Logistics management by Stephanie Naoum. Technical support by Wes Craig. Creative direction and executive production by Troy Tuttle.

Special thanks to Dr. Lee Ball and Dr. Jeremy Ferrell for the context, history and on-site updates.

Shoutout to the Principia College and Iowa State University for the support, mentorship and parts you generously provided to Team Sunergy.

Very special thanks to Andrew Grimes, and every member of Team Sunergy. You are an inspiration.