Solar Car Race Gets In Gear

Greetings from Darwin, Australia! We'll be providing ongoing coverage of the World Solar Challenge, a biennial solar car race that showcases some of the best automotive engineering from universities around the world, using truly top-notch components and design. The race begins on the northern coast of Australia and ends 3000 kilometers away in Adelaide, on the southern coast.

 

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A mere two days of last-minute tinkering remain before the race begins on Oct. 21. There's a great deal of strategy involved in every aspect of preparation, from initially crafting the vehicle's design to calculating the car's optimal speed on a second-by-second basis during the race. The teams that have now congregated in Darwin are not guaranteed a spot in the race: first they must pass a qualifying test on Saturday morning. So the decisions they make in these last few moments are crucial.

In 2005, Nuon, a Dutch team from the University of Delft, won the race while averaging a speed just a hair away from the legal limit. During that same race, MIT's solar vehicle flipped over, causing a great deal of damage to the panels on its top. To bring down the speeds of the vehicles for safety reasons as well as to add a new engineering challenge, the race's organizers changed a few key requirements this year: instead of the previous 8 square meters allowed for solar panels on the car, now the teams can use only 6 square meters. The cars must now use steering wheels (Nuon's car, Nuna, used joysticks last time) and have upright seats, which makes the car less aerodynamic than previous models.

 

Here's a glimpse of Nuna 4, getting worked on at a gas station in the sleepy town of Humpty Doo, outside Darwin:

 

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The rivalry is heating up between Nuon and another top team, Continuum, from the University of Michigan. The Michigan team purportedly has some fancy new electronics under the lid, as well as a more intricately crafted solar-panel layout. But during the "scrutineering" sessions on Thursday, where the cars and their drivers are thoroughly examined and measured, inspectors called into question the arrangement of Michigan's shingled cells, which overlap just slightly, allowing more cells to be crammed into those critical 6 square meters. Does each inch of cell count, as the inspectors contend, or only the exposed portions, as the team argues? If each cell counts, then the team is well over the 6-square-meter limit. And then there's the solar concentrator system: a set of curved mirrors that rest on top of a part of the roof and collect sun to be absorbed by a set of panels held just above the mirrors. Perhaps the mirrors also ought to be included in that measurement. If it turns out Continuum is entirely in the clear, the Michigan team will have an enormous advantage in the amount of energy it can soak up from the sun. The other teams, Nuon in particular, are anxiously awaiting the outcome.

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