Bridgestone's World Solar Challenge: A Hardcore Desert Race Powered By The Sun

Image: Prisum

In just a few days, teams from around the globe will be fanging their way across the Australian desert. Their mission: to harness the power of the sun for honour, glory and sustainability.

Welcome to Bridgestone's World Solar Challenge.

Brought to you by Bridgestone, the title sponsor of the 2017 World Solar Challenge. The 3000km solar-powered Darwin to Adelaide journey takes place from October 8-15.

But before we look towards the future, let's take a quick trip into the past.

The year is 1992. A small fiberglass car putters its way across the scorching Australian landscape. Aptly name The Quiet Achiever, it is set to become the first solely solar powered vehicle to make a transcontinental journey.

Made from humble fiberglass and steel tubing, its photovoltaic power system (PV), was rated at a mere 1kW. It is powered by ten rooftop solar panels that enables it to go a mere 23km/h.

In the end, it would end up driving from Perth to the Sydney Opera House, totaling 4,130km, in less than 20 days. That may not sound that impressive, but in comparison, the first petrol powered car to do the same trip took 30 days.

Image: This year's entry from Belgium's Punch Powertrain Solar Team

Its driver, Hans Tholstrup, was also the first person to circumnavigate the Australian continent in an open boat. His adventure across Australia in The Quiet Achiever was inspired by the belief that exploration of sustainable energy solutions was a necessity for the auto industry.

His feat became the precursor to the World Solar Challenge — a 3000km biennial race where teams build and race solar cars across the Aussie desert from Darwin to Adelaide.

It's basically like Dakar, but with more sun power and less military aircrafts being sent to rescue Margaret Thatcher's son.

Image: World Solar Challenge

The inaugural event was held in 1987, making this the 30th anniversary of its conception. There are three different classes that participants can enter in

  • The Challenger Class — a single stage race from Darwin to Adelaide.
  • The Cruiser Class — a regularity trial.
  • The Adventure Class — a non-competitive class for cars built for previous events.

What makes the challenge so interesting is that it isn't really about speed.

The heart of the competition is design — each team sets out to make the most efficient solar car possible. With only 9 hours of allowed driving time per day, the aim is how far you can get. Not how quickly. Strategy is a major component to the design and driving process.

Here is what some of the teams have divulged about their design strategies:

"Our new car evolves our unique design philosophy, known as the Resolution concept that we have established over our previous two entries. We take a different approach to most other solar teams, by using a teardrop shape that places aerodynamics at the forefront of our design process." — Cambridge University Eco Racing

"We also consider reliability and safety of the final design rather than focusing primarily on speed, paying special attention to car handling when possible. We believe that an undergraduate-built vehicle that emphasises reliability is the best car, even if it is not the fastest." — Stanford Solar Car Project

"The continuing approach that the Flinders Automotive Solar Team follows is to evolve and promote the existing and experimental technologies developed by Flinders University students to manufacture a viable future mode of transportation that is an everyday, family friendly, road registered vehicle." — Flinder Automotive Solar Team

Of course, solar batteries are key, and a huge importance is placed on keeping them charged — particularly when the cars are sedentary.

From there, it's a matter of balancing the power reserves with the output. Each thas an escort car to help with this process — they monitor their vehicle to measure the power consumption and weather in order to develop the best strategy in real time.

Being reliant on solar power, keeping an eye on the weather is pertinent to success. The car are slaves to the elements. This was particularly pertinent during the 2011 race when several leading teams were halted due to bushfires between Alice Springs and Tennant Creek.

Some Of The Rules

  • Driving time is between 8am and 5pm
  • Drivers have to adhere to ordinary road rules
  • Solar batteries are allowed, but a maximum capacity is placed on them.
  • There are mandatory checkpoints along the racetrack where teams have to stop for 30 minutes. This is the optimal time for battery charging
  • Even though the finish line is in the middle of Adelaide, technically race ends just on the outskirts of the city

What makes the race particularly special isn't just that over 40 teams from around the world are participating; its that the majority of the teams are made up of university and college students. Some are even still in high school.

This entry was designed by Native American students from Mississippi Choctaw High School

The next generation of engineers, scientists, builders and thought leaders are taking solar power seriously, and are already creating some of the most sustainable vehicle designs in the world.

The Western Sydney Solar Team perhaps says it best: "The BWSC brings together so many brilliant people who share our relentless passion for a sustainable future, and we value the electric atmosphere this creates."

Bridgestone's World Solar Challenge kicks off on Sunday October 8th. You can keep up with all of the action over at the website.

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