On Sunday October 16, thirty-nine teams representing 21 countries, gathered in Darwin, Australia to compete in the 2011 Veolia World Solar Challenge. The biennial 1,860 mile race is often called one of the world's greatest scientific adventures - One in which contestants battle the harsh conditions of the Australian Outback, behind the wheels of a solar-powered car.
First held in 1987, the race, which entails competitors to traverse across the continent all the way to Adelaide in Southern Australia, was started as a way to try promote the development of solar technology.
The experimental cars are usually built by University students in partnership with the country's leading car manufacturers or companies trying to showcase their latest technology. This year's entries included teams from University of Stanford, Michigan and The Massachusetts Institute of Technology from the USA, England's Cambridge University, and many others from all over the world.
The car race is like no other - For one, the cars do not start all together. Instead, they leave one after another, with about a minute between each exit. Also, while competitors have a week to complete the course, it is technically much less time than that. That's because the blazing temperatures and bush fires prevalent during this time of the year, make it impossible to drive during the day. Therefore, most contestants spend that time charging their cars and drive in the evenings and nights, when the temperatures are a little cooler.
While the race conditions are tough every year, this year was particularly bad, with the adventures beginning on day two when the competitors had to come to a complete halt, thanks to an arson bush fire that forced authorities to shut down the main highway both ways.
On day three, they had to contend with some wild winds and two massive (315 feet long) trains that were making their way across the continent. If that wasn't enough, Team Philippines car battery became overheated and caught fire. Luckily, they had shut down for the day and there was nobody in the car. Also, the damage was minimal allowing them to replace the battery and continue the race. These hurdles and the overcast weather in the last leg near Adelaide resulted in so much delay, that only 7 of the 37 contestants were able to complete the race by the October 23rd deadline.
However, no hurdles were too big for Japan's Tokai Challenger 2, which took home its second consecutive trophy. Built by students from the Tokai University, the sleek futuristic vehicle that resembled a tricycle featured a high-end carbon frame that was fitted with an electronic motor and a high capacity lithium-ion rechargeable battery. Its body was covered with shiny Panasonic HIT solar panels. Though the car had a maximum speed capacity of 160km/h, it averaged about 91.54km/h, completing the grueling race in 32 hours and 45 minutes.
Right behind them clocking in at 33 hours and 50 minutes was the Nuon Solar Team from the Netherlands. America's University of Michigan, placed third with an equally impressive time of 35 hours and 33 minutes.
Over the history of the race, Japan leads the pack with its six wins, while Netherlands has succeeded in crossing the finishing line first, four times. The USA has only been able to win it once and a lot of other countries have not even been able to complete it, within the stipulated time. However, that does not seem to discourage students from entering this green engineering challenge and the number of teams keeps increasing every year.
resources : the register.co.uk, inhabitat.com,physorg.com,worldsolarchallenge.org