This year’s World Solar Challenge will pit vehicles from 21 countries against 3000km of sun drenched terrain in Australia. It is only one of several events where solar cars are put to the test. This October, the solar cars start with 5kW hours of stored energy. The rest must be derived from the sun or be recovered from the kinetic energy of the vehicle.

Solar cars from around the world will gather in Australia
Solar cars from around the world will gather in Australia

Each team builds their cars from their choice of design, materials, and parts. Cells, batteries, and motors differ from team to team. Their choices include Lithium polymer batteries, SunPower C50 crystalline silicon cells, and brushless DC motors. Put the pieces together and they record cruising speeds of 65 km/h (40 mph), 96 km/h (60 mph), and more.

Two of the teams face unique challenges. This is the first year Saudi Arabia will participate. The World Solar Challenge has been occurring since 1987 and many teams have enviable previous experience. The Saudi team faces having to envision, design, and build their first solar car in less than a year.

In Illinois, Principia College is a liberal arts school with nary an engineer in sight. They are depending on the passion of the team members to find creative solutions so they can build a successful vehicle. Don?t count them out. They finished a respectable 7th and took the Safety Award in the Challenge class of the Global Green Challenge event in Australia in 2009. Liberal arts classes frequently emphasize writing skills, so you may find the blow-by-blow record of their 2009 experiences during that race an enjoyable read.

Catrina Chiodo, Management Engineering Student and a pilot for Waterloo University at World Solar Challenge 2011It is said that Canadian University of Waterloo?s entry, Midnight Sun, a tenth generation solar vehicle, took inspiration from a mix between the car from Night Rider and the robot from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Uncommonly, it will be driven by a female ? Catrina Chiodo, a management engineering student.  She says: "There’s a lot of pressure when you are driving a $250,000 car, so it?s a big responsibility. I’m honored. Sometimes when I’m driving, I just start smiling because it?s so fun."

The trip isn’t all smiles – it’s grueling. Each day the teams go as far as they can until 5pm when they must stop and self-sufficiently pitch camp in the desert. Teams get update information at seven mandatory check points and are only allowed to correct tire pressure and clean debris off the vehicle. Additional surprise checkpoints keep competitors in compliance with regulations.

Durham University in the UK is enthusiastic about their chances
Durham University in the UK is enthusiastic about their chances

Cost is always a factor in student projects and although several sponsors have stepped forward, the UK team from Durham University is hoping to gain a few more. You’d be betting on a winner. The team was named Top Rookie Team in a 2,400 mile North American Solar Challenge in 2008. The are hoping to place well this year using an in-wheel drive motor and flexible solar panels. The output from silicon solar cells is passed through maximum power point trackers to extract the maximum possible power from the cells. These are connected to four sealed gel lead-acid batteries. A video below shows Durham competing with countrymen from Cambridge.

The specifications for the Durham entry gives you an idea of a typical configuration: Number of wheels: 3 (2 front steered, 1 rear driven). Power from solar array: 1.4kW. Efficiency of solar cells: 16 percent. Maximum power of motor: 5kW. Maximum speed: 56mph. Storage capacity: 4.8kWh. Chassis Construction: Steel space frame. Body shell Construction: Carbon fiber.

Teams from Chile, Turkey, Iran, Netherlands, Philippines, India, and Korea are only a few of the other countries competing. Last year, Japan’s Tokai University team drove off with the trophy from the 10-day 4,061-kilometer South African Solar Challenge. They won the bi-annual event previously in 2008. The Japanese solar car uses Sharp compound solar cells developed for outer space applications. Sharp indicates that the cells have the highest cell conversion efficiency in the world ? 30 percent, with an output of 1.8kW. The Tokai team has faced the challenge imposed on all Japanese, recovering from the earthquake and tsunami. They hope their participation in the World Solar Challenge will encourage the reconstruction of their country.

Solar car challenges take place all over the world
Solar car challenges take place all over the world

An American Solar Challenge being held in 2012 is a solar-powered car, cross-country time/distance rally event. Teams compete over a 1200-1500 mile course between multiple cities. In contrast, the Formula Sun Grand Prix is a track event held on grand prix or road style closed courses. This format tests the limits of solar cars in handling curves, braking and acceleration. Strategies for the two events differ one from the other.

World Solar Challenge 2011: The Route takes racers from Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs and Coober Pedy to Port Augusta and AdelaideAfter the Australian event, participants can also look forward to another South African Solar Challenge which will be a two week race in the Fall of next year.

The organization?s goals are similar to those of every Solar Challenge event: the creative integration of technical and scientific expertise across a wide-range of disciplines.

They hope to develop an understanding of marketing, business and management skills needed to execute large and complex projects. The event emphasizes environmental consciousness, safety in all aspects of the challenge, development, testing and racing; and above all, sportsmanship, friendship and co-operation.

In any case, we wish all the competitors best of luck and may the most efficient vehicle win.