A team of engineers from the University of Calgary have been racing a car around the continent of Australia, using only the sun for fuel.
The U of C solar car team is just one of over forty teams participating in the Panasonic World Solar Challenge. The race started Sun., Oct. 21 and will finish Sun., Oct. 28 taking the team from the tropics, through the outback to the south.
"The fact that we can demonstrate that a car driven solely on solar panels can make a very excruciating drive across some of the harshest conditions in the world shows that the technology is robust and on the verge of full commercialization," said one of the two U of C drivers Matt Rach.
The U of C team first participated in the race in 2005 and drove off with first place in their class. This time around many of the team members are new and some of the rules have changed, explained Solar Car business manager Adam Berti.
"It's a similar route but there's a new car," he said. "We had to make a car with less solar panels, a driver who sits up a little more [and] they have to get in and out of the car on their own."
Despite having some mechanical problems to deal with, the team is currently in tenth place overall.
"We blew a rear tire," said Berti. "The tire came off the rim, the car spun out and slammed tail first into the side rail at the race track where we were doing testing and proceded to rip off the entire the chassis."
Berti travels with the rest of the team in a convoy, placing cars both behind and in front of the solar car to protect it from traffic. The team is trying to reach the point where they are able to say that solar power can drive a car, explained Rach.
"We perceive that one day you could put solar panels on your garage and the power from those panels could charge your car and you could run off of that," he said.
Despite his excitement about the car, Rach noted the practicality of driving a solar car is not yet there.
"The race is pretty much an experiment," he said. "We have restrictions, we try to make the cars as light as possible, so a lot of the comforts are taken away."
One of the biggest challenges he's faced has been the heat noted Rach.
"The car is pretty difficult to handle, it's very delicate, it doesn't have power steering so it can go off pretty easy," he said. "The car is noisy, it's pretty much hollow inside, we're about two feet away from the motor. We can't see what's behind us or what's beside us."