AN OLD RAF BASE, Leicestershire—While it might look like a catamaran without its sails, or perhaps an unusual dual-basin carbon-fibre bathtub, you are actually looking at Durham University’s solar car (DUSC). In October, the DUSC will race against 50 other solar cars in Australia, in an attempt to be the fastest solar car to cover the 3,000 kilometres (1,860 miles) from Darwin in the north to Adelaide in the south. The car was first unveiled on Sunday at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground, about 10 miles south of Leicester, and I was there to watch the DUSC sputter into life and complete its first juddering revolution of the track.
For a student project, DUSC is rather impressive. The team is led by a research postgraduate, and there’s a lecturer who acts as an advisor, but otherwise it’s undergrads all the way: there’s an engineering student on aerodynamics, a business student handling sponsorship, and various other electronics, maths, and physics students handling each of the rather specialised domains that are required to make a solar-powered car. The budget for the project was around £80,000 (€110,000, $120,000), which is pretty low compared to some of the other teams. “A lot of the bigger teams, like the University of Michigan, have millions to play around with,” one of the students told me.
Car – yellow teamIn friendly competition with others attempting the same goals, the teams depart Darwin aiming to be the first to arrive in Adelaide, some 3000km to the south.
It’s all about energy management! Based on the original notion that a 1000W car would complete the journey in 50 hours, solar cars are allowed a nominal 5kW hours of stored energy, which is 10% of that theoretical figure. All other energy must come from the sun or be recovered from the kinetic energy of the vehicle.
These are arguably the most efficient electric vehicles.
Having made the journey to Darwin by successfully navigating quarantine, customs, scrutineering, safety inspections and undertaken event briefings, participants are ready to start their epic journey.
Once the teams have left Darwin they must travel as far as they can until 5pm in the afternoon where they make camp in the desert where-ever they happen to be. All teams must be fully self-sufficient and for all concerned it is a great adventure – many say the adventure of a lifetime.
The Challenger class is conducted in a single stage from Darwin to Adelaide.
The Cruiser Class is conducted in two stages, with a compulsory overnight stop in Alice Springs where teams may recharge from the grid. In 2013, Cruiser Class teams were able to charge from the grid in three locations, this change in 2015 will encourage teams to deploy the most innovative approaches to energy management.
The Adventure Class is also conducted over two stages, with an overnight stop in Alice Springs.
During the journey there are 7 mandatory check points where observers are changed and team managers may update themselves with the latest information on the weather and their own position in the field. Here teams may perform the most basic of maintenance only – checking and maintenance of tyre pressure and cleaning of debris from the vehicle.
There are also undisclosed check points which may be imposed by the event officials to ensure regulatory compliance.