Driver escapes seconds before solar vehicle explodes

Nick Sitts was driving a solar vehicle north along 15th Street toward the formation area of the da Vinci Days parade shortly after 11 a.m. Saturday when he heard a pop.

Moments later there was an explosion, and soon the $100,000 vehicle was engulfed in flames.

Sitts got out just in time - right after he heard that initial pop, said Hai Yue Han, co-captain of the Oregon State University Solar Vehicle Team, which constructed the vehicle from 2008 to 2010.

"If it had been a few moments later, he may have not made it out alive," Han said.

Sitts' sister, Danielle, also a member of the team, was in an escort car ahead of solar vehicle when the explosion occurred. She looked back and saw smoke.

"I was more scared than I'd every been in my life," she said. "My brother was in a car that was on fire."

Sitts' wife, Elizabeth, was in a trail vehicle with their soon-to-be-1-year-old baby Penelope and two others sisters of Nick, Nicole and Cheyenne Sitts. Elizabeth helped pull her husband away from the burning vehicle, Danielle said.

Sitts had first- and second-degree burns to his arms and face and some singed hair. "He looked like he had a bad sunburn, she said. "He lost a shoe; it disintegrated."

Sitts, 23, a junior chemical engineering major from Scappoose, was treated at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center. He was released mid-afternoon Saturday and was resting at home in Corvallis. His parents arrived from the Portland area to assist him.

"He seemed to be in very good spirits considering the accident and injuries he suffered," said Steve Clark, OSU vice president of OSU relations.

Han believes the explosion was caused by a short in one of the battery cells. Each of the 28 battery packs contains 20 small cylindrical lithium-ion battery cells - a total of 568.

Some of the battery cells landed in the OSU parking lot on the east side of 15th. The explosion occurred about 50 yards south of the Kerr Administration Building.

Sitts had driven the solar vehicle from 30th Street and Washington Avenue, where the vehicle was stored, Han said.

In the rubble, the titanium frame was still intact but warped. "We recovered nothing from that car," Han said.

The heat from the fire also caused minor asphalt damage a few feet away in the southbound lane of 15th.

Da Vinci Days organizers sent a truck to haul the rubble elsewhere on campus. The OSU Solar Vehicle Team did some quick research and found that there were no hazardous materials, Han said. The rubble was then placed in a campus disposal bin.

Han said there was some liability coverage on the vehicle, which was built with mostly donated parts. He guessed it would be 2014 before the team completes another solar vehicle.

Next time, he said, the team will use lithium iron nanophosphate batteries instead of lithium-ion batteries.

"They are inert. They do not explode," he said of lithium iron nanophosphate batteries. "It's a cutting edge technology that is coming out and we will be adopting that technology."

What worked Saturday was the solar vehicle team's recently upgraded egress system.

"With every solar vehicle, you have to be able to get out in 10 seconds," Han said. He and others estimated that Nick Sitts made it out in two to five seconds.

Corvallis Fire Department, OSU Department of Public Safety, Oregon State Police and Corvallis police responded to the fire.

Graham Kislingbury can be reached at 541-758-9515 or graham.kislingbury@lee.net


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Online Editor, Mid-Valley Newspapers (Corvallis Gazette-Times, Albany Democrat-Herald, Lebanon Express)