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The World Solar Challenge Shows the Future of Solar Cars

The World Solar Challenge is probably the most famous of the different solar car races that take place around the world each year or two. The WSC features teams from all around the world who have designed and built their own extremely efficient solar powered vehicles.

All of the teams and their solar powered racecars then descend on Darwin, Australia to take part in the grueling race which is designed to test the limits of human engineering and innovation. Each team shows up to the race with the same goal in mind: being the first car to drive the 3000 kilometers (almost 1900 miles) from Darwin to Adelaide. The race is essentially friendly in nature, with each team trying to overcome to same obstacles to reach the finish line. 

History of the World Solar Challenge

The 2011 World Solar Challenge featured teams from around the world, and was won by Tokai University from Japan. Second place went to the Nuon team from the Netherlands, while the University of Michigan team finished third. 

world solar challengeThese teams celebrated finally reaching Adelaide with a traditional dunking in the Victoria Square fountain. 2011 was the first time in five races that the Nuon team from the Netherlands did not win. They had scored four consecutive victories in the previous races.

The race was originally the brain child of Danish adventurer Hans Tholstrup who then sold the idea to the state of South Australia. The first race was held in 1987 and every three years after until 1999. Since 1999 the race has been held every other year.

Structure of the World Solar Challenge

The WSC has very strict rules and regulations for the design of the car that each team must meticulously follow in order to not be disqualified from the race. After arriving in Darwin, each team and their car must go through a number of event briefings and safety inspections before they are ready to embark on their journey. The teams are allowed to start driving at 8 am each morning and are allowed to drive all day until 5 pm, when they must shut their car down and camp wherever they are in the desert. 

Each team has to be completely self-sufficient, meaning that any and all gear that they may need has to be brought with them in the truck or van that follows each solar powered race car.Each team has an observer with them to ensure that they follow all of the rules strictly and are not tempted to cheat in any way. 

world solar challengeThe race has seven mandatory checkpoints spread randomly throughout the course. At each checkpoint, the team receives a new observer to accompany them on the next leg of the race. At the checkpoints, the team manager is allowed to update him or herself on the team’s location and the current weather forecasts. 

Teams are also allowed to perform minor basic maintenance at the checkpoints, although this is limited to checking tire pressure and cleaning the car to remove any dirt or debris that may have accumulated during the long drive through the desert. 

Event officials also often set up previously undisclosed checkpoints in random parts of the course to ensure that each team is still complying with the rules of the race. Teams must register at least two drivers and they are allowed to have up to 4 drivers. If the weight of the driver plus his clothing and gear weighs less than 180 pounds, then ballasts must be added to the car to make up the additional weight. This ensures a level playing field so no team can use extremely light drivers to their advantage.

Design of the Cars in the World Solar Challenge

The entire race was originally based around the theory that a solar car powered by 1000 watts of solar panel could make the entire journey from Darwin to Adelaide in about fifty hours. This is quite an impressive concept considering the fact that it normally takes a traditional, gasoline powered car between 35 and 40 hours to make this trip if they do not stop along the way. 

world solar challengeTo make the race much more competitive and require the teams to be much more innovative, the organizers of the World Solar Challenge decided to force the teams to attempt this feat with only a fraction of 1000 watts of power. Each vehicle is only allowed 5 kilowatt hours of energy to be stored in the car, meaning that any other energy must come directly from the sun. 

The most successful designs also take advantage of the principle of kinetic energy to help create energy as the vehicle moves down the road. Due to the strict limitations placed on the vehicles competing in the race, they are normally considered to be some of the highest efficiency solar powered cars in the world. 

The design of the car itself is completely up to each team competing in the race, although all of the cars normally closely resemble each other. The cars are designed and built of out extremely lightweight, space age materials to require as little energy as possible to keep them moving. 

The cars feature a large flat surface on top of the car that is entirely covered with lightweight, high efficiency thin film photovoltaic solar panels. 

 
These cars are so well designed and constructed that they are able to reach speeds between 70 and 150 kilometers per hour (45 to 90 miles per hour) while only using the same amount of wattage as a toaster uses. The cars normally weigh about as much as a conventional refrigerator.
 

Let's meet some of the teams competing in the WSC! They come from all around the globe to compete in this prestigious race, with solar powered cars that they've built themselves.

Punch Powertrain Solar Team
- This team hails from Belgium, more precisely it consists of seventeen students from the electro-mechanics and electronics departments of the University of Leuven. They are working on the university's fifth solar car.

Onda Solare - The University of Bologna and the technical high school of Modena, both in Italy, have joined hands to build the Emilia 3. This third installment of their solar vehicle has been completely redesigned from previous versions to improve both aerodynamics and electronics.

McMaster Solar Car - The Canadian team from McMaster University has over 50 people from several of the university's departments working together on three different types of solar cars, called the Spitfire, the Phoenix and the Fireball. Three cars? That can only mean one thing: ambitions are high!

JU Solar Team - You might think this sounds Japanese, but this team is actually from the Jönköping University in Sweden, which is actually one of the leading countries when it comes to sutainable energy! They have a team of 24 people, both teachers and students, working on their car called the Natural Magic Energy (NME? hope that doesn't stand for "enemy"!)

Team Arrow - This team is from the WSC motherland of Australia, more precisely from the north eastern state of Queensland. Contrary to most other teams, they are not attached to a University, but instead combine the work of several Australian companies that all deliver different parts for the car.

Aurora Solar Car - The Aurora team also comes from Australia, and with almost 35 years of experience in the field and having won the event in 1999, is one of the most respected teams to compete in the WSC. Like Team Arrow, this team is not tied to a University either, but receives its funds from a collection of Australian companies and non-profit organisations.


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