Spotlight: Student Solar Racers Create The Future Of PV Automotive Tech
The sun peaks over a horizon of dry, cracked ground so unfamiliar that it seems alien. Moments into the new day, with the heat rising quickly, a team of engineering and business students cheer their car onto a stretch of tarmac that seems to go on forever.
This is day two of competition, and you're inside one of the most advanced vehicles on earth. You are the driver of Durham University's latest solar car, and you're racing to Adelaide from Darwin, Australia powered only by photons. This is the World Solar Challenge, and being in it is like no other feeling on earth.
While the solar challenge has become the litmus test of advanced solar automotive tech, it started 30 years ago as a means to demonstrate that solar energy could not only power homes and businesses, but with the right innovative thinking, it could be a practical and clean automotive power source, too.
While today's solar racers are typically wonders of streamlined engineering strangely unlike conventional petrol and diesel powered cars, their PV cell covered bodies are demonstrating what's possible, steadily increasing speed and endurance. They are edging closer each year to the dream of World Solar Challenge (WSC) founders Hans Tholstrup and Larry Perkins of demonstrating that solar power can find a place wherever electric energy is needed—even in what is today the high octane world of competitive automobile racing.
At Northern England's Durham University, the World Solar Challenge is one stop along a road that is taking students towards exciting careers in multiple engineering and business disciplines. Just like commercial auto makers, building a solar car from the wheels up involves everything from exterior design and fabrication to motor development and refinement, as well as business management, publicity and fund raising. Students participating in the Durham University program, now about 50 in all, work hard in every category needed to design and field a solar racer. Everyone pitches in, whether their interests are designing new electric motors or ultra-high performance gallium arsenide solar cells, there is work to do and only so much time before the next race.
Solar+Power Management Technical Editor Mark Andrews spoke with Durham's team Business Manager, Tobias McBride, about the challenges of fielding a car that is built quite literally by hand using components designed and fabricated by students in almost every case. With the encouragement of faculty including their academic adviser, Dr. David Sims-Williams, the Durham University Electric Motorsports (DUEM) team has already built three generations of cars, a journey that began in 2002 and has continued across multiple races including the World Solar Challenge that DUEM entered first in 2008. As the team notes in describing their challenge, the students thought that their expertise and interest in renewable energy should make them contenders in the quest to bring solar energy into the limelight of automotive technology. The fact they chose to do this from their campus in, ‘…arguably one of the coldest and wettest places on earth in the North of England…' was not only ironic, but a testament to their dedication and perseverance.
As one of the senior members of the DUEM team, McBride has seen the team grow over his years at university. He has been involved in just about every aspect of the program, and like all students on the team, has found that solar car experience can propel a career in renewable resources, but as most students discover, their activities support any professional interest where innovation and leadership are prized.
“The DUEM team is entirely student-run and led and has been since its founding in 2002. As the UK's most established solar car team, we work closely with our partners in establishing technical capabilities, utilising our combined resources and capabilities to the maximum. We also have deep integration with Durham University and the Business School itself; we are incredibly lucky to utilise their facilities as well as consult with their wide range of academic expertise. My specific role as head of the DUEM business team is to raise the necessary funds needed for the team through external sponsorship, and manage business-orientated tasks effectively, in order to achieve these goals,” McBride noted.
The Durham team has fielded three solar cars and is now developing its fourth vehicle based on successes and learning experiences garnered since its first car took to the track in 2008. Sponsorships are key to the program's continuance, and sponsors also bring valuable expertise to complement the students' own work and university resources.
“2018 is a major year for the team. In our 16th year, we are designing a brand new solar car entirely from the ground up. This is a major technical and financial challenge and is not something we undertake lightly! We are the only solar car team whose members design, engineer and manufacture every single component on the car - other teams sub-contract out. This means although it may take longer, we develop expertise across a wide-range of disciplines and this keeps our budgetary costs an order of magnitude below our competitors. This means our sponsors and partners see larger value-added from their support.”
“We will also be taking our two past solar car models to events around the country. We presented at Cleantech Innovate, London, on 20th March and we were also at Energy Live in London on 7th June. We will continue to expand our marketing reach for the team, university and sponsors at other events like this alongside our outreach campaign to inspire the next generation of STEM and business students,” McBride said.
While the Durham University team has fielded cars in the World Solar Challenge, considered the most grueling of all long-distance solar car races, and have finished events that many others have not, they haven't yet brought home the number of top finishes as the more heavily sponsored teams from The Netherlands and Germany; those teams have consistently ranked amongst the top finishers in the last five World Solar Challenge races, which are held every other year.
“Our primary goals have not changed, and neither have many of our obstacles faced since we began in 2002 and first raced in 2008. We want to design, build and race the world's best solar cars. Our strategy is formed around the idea of providing a powerful education platform to inspire the next generation of STEM and business students around the world. We showcase our car at world-renowned events, inspiring the public to think differently about our climate. We design and manufacture the most efficient, fastest and most innovative solar cars in the world. We have achieved 16 years of being at the forefront of innovation,” he said.
The DUEM team is unique in that while winning is an important ultimate goal, the university program has always stressed innovation and much of that emphasis has been seen in the students' ability to design, develop and fabricate most of its solar vehicle's components. While this isn't the easiest approach, it delivers the best learning experience and has yielded some amazing innovations, including their vehicles' electric motors that are over 99 percent efficient.