x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The students making light work of solar land-speed record

Australian students want to break their own speed record for solar cars.Matt Majendie meets the team

Students from the University of New South Wales, Australia, broke the land-speed record for a solar-powered car that had stood for 22 years. Matt Cumming
Students from the University of New South Wales, Australia, broke the land-speed record for a solar-powered car that had stood for 22 years. Matt Cumming

Back in 1989, the land-speed record for a solar-powered vehicle was set at 78.3kph and that remained untouched - unchallenged really - until the end of January, when a group of Australian students decided to topple the might of General Motors, which had held the record for the previous 22 years.

Even more remarkably, the record - a top speed of 88.8kph - was set using less than the wattage required to power your toaster at breakfast time.

And the students of the University of New South Wales are confident they can comfortably eclipse that record and reach at least the 100kph mark using the same power if the conditions are right.

Daniel Friedman , the project manager explained: "The average toaster uses 1,200 watts and we broke the record using 1,050 watts, which is obviously 150 watts less than a toaster and considerably less than, say, a hairdryer."

The vehicle itself, the appropriately named Sunswift IVy, is powered using silicon cells around its body akin to those on homes that are solar powered.

The vehicle is the same size as an average saloon but half the height and incredibly light, about one tenth of the weight of an average car because of its carbon-fibre frame.

At an estimated Dh1 million, it cost considerably more than a toaster, and only came to being thanks to a sizeable amount of goodwill on the part of the project's various sponsors, ranging from Boeing to the Royal Australian Navy.

"One of our biggest sponsors from last year was Boeing," explained Friedman, "who did a lot of the carbon-fibre work. We also got a lot of support from the university and, on top of that, had a lot of in-kind sponsors who saw the value of the project and ended up giving us a little bit of stock like, say, electrical components or tools."

But the key to the record attempt lay with the Australian navy, which gave the Sunswift team permission to use its HMAS Albatross base for their record attempt, one of the few stretches long enough for the team to realistically break the record.

"It takes about a kilometre to get up to top speed and there's not a lot of places where that's viable," Friedman added. "I think the stars just aligned this year in our attempt to do it.

"A lot of team members had approached the air force in previous years, but it had never been properly followed through. But it just so happened that when I made contact, the lieutenant commander of the base was quite excited and bought into the idea.

"He did the work required within his circuits and it turned out the air force was happy to use the airfield for something good like this and they allowed us to do it at exactly the right time of year."

The time of year in question was the height of the Australian summer when the team was anticipating blue skies and bright sunshine. The only problem was that when members arrived at the air base they were treated to a cloudy day.

Unfazed by what would have seemed an impossible obstacle, the team cracked on with the record attempt.

"With something like we're working on, we get the most from the solar panels at midday, which for us would have been 1pm with daylight saving taken into consideration," said Friedman.

"But the conditions weren't exactly ideal and we ended up breaking the record at 10.30 in the morning, two-and-a-half hours before the optimum time for the record. It was the only time we could go for it as the clouds were gathering quickly.

"It's amazing, but in the four days that we spent there we had just a 13-minute window to break the record and that happened precisely at 10.30am on the day in question. And clearly it was meant to be as the adjucator had just got there and had set himself up ready to validate the record."

The record breaker at the controls of the Sunswift was not one of the student team but two separate professional drivers: Craig Davies of Tesla Europe and Barton Mawer of Mawer Engineering. And it was Mawer at the controls as the record tumbled.

Friedman was one of 35 people working on the project. In all, he explained there were "10 or 15 diehards" and a lot of other people involved on the fringes of the project in one way or another.

Sunswift, in its fourth year, has come on leaps and bounds in the past 12 months in particular, a fact that the project manager commends to last year's students.

"This record genuinely came out of nowhere and is all down to an incredible group of engineers we had last year," he said.

As one of the longest-standing land-speed records, it's a wonder why it was not broken previously and Friedman is not completely clear as to the reason.

"No one else had decided to have a go at it before," he said. "Partly the reason is that it's quite a sizeable effort to put everything together to get it done. And also I think because the record had lasted for so long it had genuinely just slipped out of people's minds."

Friedman believes there are teams capable of breaking the record, although he knows of no other project using as low a wattage as the Sunswift team, which went 13 per cent faster than the previous record holders using one third of the power.

However, things don't stop with the record. The Australian students plan to enter their creation into the World Solar Challenge, which takes place in Australia in October and during which teams travel the length of Australia from Adelaide to Darwin.

"It's cool to say we're record breakers, but there's still quite a lot to do as a team," added Friedman. "For us, it's just the start and we've now got quite a lot of momentum going forward and hopefully we've got a chance of winning the World Solar Challenge."

The South African-born Friedman, who moved to Australia with his family a few years ago, only initially fell into the project by default because friends were already involved in it.

"I really had no idea it would become like this," he said. "It started as a bit of fun but it sort of took over all our lives. We knew on paper that the car could break the record, but it's very different saying that and doing it.

"And it's amazing how it's been received around the world. The interest has been crazy really. And we'd love someone else to go after our record to further the sustainability debate in terms of transport.

"Hopefully we've been able to show to a small degree what renewable energy can do and how far it can stretch which is vital when we're dealing with climate change."

According to both drivers, the ride was surprisingly smooth. Mawer likened it to a glider, adding: "There's a little bit of vibration but it's actually quite smooth and it glides through the turns surprisingly well."

Friedman's bid to take Sunswift IVy faster and further in terms of development looks set to become considerably easier now. Having previously struggled to raise funds in the project's early days, he admitted that, since the record: "I find people are answering my emails a little more rapidly and frequently now!"

But they are still working on about one tenth of the funding of the top teams in the World Solar Challenge, so they face a David-and-Goliath-style battle to keep in front.

Friedman, in the final year of his university degree, is confident they can do just that.