Here comes the sun

Queen’s Solar Vehicle Team’s car races across Australia this weekend powered by solar energy

Eric Frazier and driver Kevin McHale get ready for a test-run in Aurum, the Queen’s Solar Vehicle Team’s car. The team is competing in the World Solar Challenge in Australia next week, racing over 3,000 kilometres from Darwin to Adelaide.
Eric Frazier and driver Kevin McHale get ready for a test-run in Aurum, the Queen’s Solar Vehicle Team’s car. The team is competing in the World Solar Challenge in Australia next week, racing over 3,000 kilometres from Darwin to Adelaide.
Supplied photo by Queen’s Solar Vehicle Team

This Sunday, 22 cars will begin a 3,021-km journey across the Australian outback, from Darwin to Adelaide.

The route’s vast distance and imposing climate are only part of the challenge. Each car will complete the journey using just sunlight as fuel.

Among the competitors in this World Solar Challenge is the Queen’s Solar Vehicle Team and their car, Aurum. The four-day journey across Australia will begin on Monday after qualifying races the previous day.

The team first entered the World Solar Challenge in 1990 and has competed in six of the eight races held since then.

The team builds a new car every two years, and uses it in various international competitions. Their current car, Aurum, is named for the Latin word for gold.

In addition to the Australian race, they’re hoping to use Aurum in the 2008 North American Solar Car Challenge next summer, a race from Austin, Texas to Calgary, which takes place over 3,860 kilometres.

In the World Solar Challenge, the team will be competing entrants from universities and corporations in the Challenge class, which features the strictest set of rules on the car’s design and composition. Since the race takes place in public roads, the cars must adhere to normal traffic regulations. For each car, a minimum of two drivers and maximum of four drivers must be registered. Batteries may not be replaced during the race, except in case of a breakdown.

Any team with a vehicle that meets the requirements can participate in the race.

Mechanical engineering professor and team founder Steve Harrison said around 10 students from the current team will be in Australia to participate in the competition. They will be joined by several team alumni.

“Usually, we have a couple drivers: we switch the drivers in and out,” he said. “The other team members make up the support crews. Like any sort of racing team, you have a support crew that deals with mechanical systems and the electrical systems, and then there’s another group that deals with strategy­­—how you run the race, data collection and logistics.” There are normally between 20 and 30 people involved with the team, with about 15 to 20 students forming the core team that works throughout the summer to prepare for fall races, Harrison said.

The car’s design depends on three criteria: adherence to competition rules, the team’s manufacturing capabilities and overall vehicle efficiency.

“The project has grown in scope, and certainly the whole business of solar car racing has evolved over the years,” Harrison said.

“Teams have gotten more competitive, and better and better. There have been massive advances in battery technology, motor technology, materials technology and solar cell technology, so with all of those together, the vehicle becomes more and more efficient. Vehicles are running much faster and covering the race courses in less time.”

Harrison said technology developed from solar car research may make its way into other automobiles soon.

“The advent of plug-in hybrids is not very far off, and there is work to have solar-charged hybrid vehicles underway by various groups,” he said. “What we’ll probably see is a hybrid vehicle that has many sources of power, and one of them may be solar energy.”

The team itself has also evolved over the years, Harrison said.

“From the first project, from the very beginning, it’s grown into much more of a multidisciplinary project. There [are] people from the School of Business, all disciplines of engineering, education, arts, whatever.” Koby Dering, the team’s mechanical manager, said the design for Aurum underwent some late modifications in preparation for the World Solar Challenge this year.

Normally the team would spend a year designing the car followed by a year of building it, but this year there was a design change late into the first year due to changes in the competition rules.

“In the past, all cars have had the drivers sitting in a recumbent position, or lying down,” Dering said. “This year, they said you now have to sit up when you’re driving. The car wasn’t designed for that, it was designed to be as thin as possible. All of a sudden, the car wasn’t tall enough. The driver couldn’t fit in there.” Dering said putting the car together is a long and involved process.

“A lot of the work is really, really tedious heavy mechanical labour, especially the layout of the car,” he said.

Although most of the work is done by team members in their shop in the Integrated Learning Centre, some of the more complex machinery or chemical components are contracted out to national developers or sponsors, such as Bell Helicopter Textron, ITL Circuits and Aggressive Tube Bending.

Dering said safety is a high priority in the design guidelines.

“Your car needs to have a roll-bar that fully encompasses the driver, you have to have adequate protection systems to make sure the battery doesn’t explode, things like that,” he said. “They try to make it as safe as possible.”

Jonathan Poh, Comm ’10 and the team’s business manager, said each new car is expensive, but volunteer contributions and corporate donations of materials make up the majority of the cost.

They also receive some support through their $0.50 opt-outable AMS student fee.

The team spends approximately $350,000 on the car’s construction, but Poh said the actual cost would be much higher because sponsors and volunteers will often provide materials and tools that would otherwise add to the cost.

“There’s $350,000 contributed to the car in terms of monetary support, but if you look in hindsight [with] the contributions that team members and other companies have made to the team, you could call it a million-dollar car,” Poh said.

The team’s main sponsor is Hatch, a leading global engineering consulting firm.Poh couldn’t specify the exact contributions from the team’s many sponsors.

“Depending on the contribution, [the companies] will receive a certain level of sponsorship that we provide,” he said. “The more they contribute, the greater our levels are. For instance, a company can have its logo on our solar car, on the team race shirt, on the trailer, and on the promotional material that we hand out at events we attend.”

Poh said the team’s managers are paid during the summer but work as volunteers during the year.

The weather conditions in Australia will be the team’s biggest challenge during the race, he said.

“Driver and car will experience hot and humid but mostly dry temperatures [during the day] and freezing cold temperatures during the nighttime.

“It’s more of an endurance event, and we hope to complete the race. There have been some cases where solar cars are not able to complete the race.”

In designing Aurum, Poh said, the team wanted to create a car that could be marketable to industry.

“What we’re trying to do with this car is actually more commercially viable than the [other cars we’ve made],” he said, adding that the silicon-based solar cells in Aurum are cheaper and more commercially available than in previous cars.

Poh said the upright position of the driver this year makes the car more commercially appealing because it’s more like the cars people drive.

“It shows that electric vehicles can be used in a commercial setting,” he said.

Poh said developing cars powered by these alternative sources is a crucial goal for humanity.

“To reduce emissions, to cut down [greenhouse] gases and if you think about, it could help satisfy the world’s growing energy demands.” 

He said alternative energy sources are vital for the future.

“The way of the future is renewable sources of energy. Although we focus on solar energy, we don’t necessarily believe that there will be cars driving around with solar cells on the body of the car. There will be cars powered by electricity that has been generated from solar cells.”

How solar cars work

  • A solar panel on top of the vehicle collects energy from the sun.
  • The energy is fed into a battery pack, where it’s either diverted out to power the car or stored for later use. The team’s car uses 512 laptop batteries.
  • There’s no drive train or gears in the car: the rear tire and the wheel in the car act as the motor. “By eliminating gears, we can get a much higher efficiency,” Dering said.

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