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Sep 2012

In July, we followed Fiona McIntosh as she ran 800km in 20 days, and we were impressed. But now, students from the University of Johannesburg plan on driving over five thousand kilometres around South Africa on nothing more than a ray of sunlight! It looks as if we are going to be impressed again!

There are several solar car rallies around the world, and the competition is intense.  Having recently driven across the country, I can attest that local road conditions will make the South African rally as tough as any.  The vehicles are serious feats of engineering - the components alone cost millions of Rands, and the vehicles travel at speeds approaching 140km/h. (The team think that the optimal speed to travel at is 80km/h.) To make matters harder, this trip is actually a race, with international teams from as far as Japan and the USA competing. This is Solar Challenge 2012, with 12 teams, 3 vehicle classes and former Dakar Rally winning drivers in attendance. 

The UJ team have pulled together students from various disciplines, such as engineering and industrial design, to ensure that their car, Ilanga I, is more than just the sum of its parts.

The most impressive thing I did as a student was to not set myself on fire during three years of undergrad lab experiments, and I guess this is true for most science and engineering students. But the UJ team is in a different league. The team consists of eight undergraduate students, two masters students and work under the supervision of academic staff from three departments.  Even more impressive is that this is just the beginning – the team have already refined the current design, and fully intend on winning the 2014 challenge with Ilanga II if victory eludes them this week.

Although there are technical details galore on their website, let’s just briefly consider the challenge they face. In order to race effectively, the vehicle must be light. But it also has to be fast, and thus needs powerful motors.  Unfortunately, these motors add weight, and draw a lot of electricity. So the vehicle needs lots of solar panels. But these add more weight.  Also, the sun will not necessarily be bright enough to power the setup all the time, and so the vehicle needs batteries to power the vehicle when the sun is not doing its job. And, you’ve guessed it… this adds more weight again.  And by now, with this brute force approach, you end up with a vehicle that is too heavy and will probably not make it up the first hill!  

The brilliance of the UJ team, and the reason they are engineers and I’m a journalist, is their ability to find a balance between generating electricity, delivering power to the wheels, storing excess power, and bundling this all into a light and aerodynamic package.  The technical pieces on their website are well worth perusing, even if only to be seriously impressed!

We will be posting regular updates on the team as they take on the South African roads, and the teams from across the world, so stay tuned…

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