Solar Skeleton

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As the world ponders global warming and the end of oil, a small subculture of futurists with a view beyond the petrol pump are planning a coming-of-age party in Darwin for October next year. They’ll be toasting twenty years of successful solar car racing.

In 1983, inspired by the excursions of Paul MacCready in to solar-powered flight, Danish-born Australian adventurer Hans Tholstrup and racing driver Larry Perkins slowly coaxed a “photovoltai-covered bathtub on wheels” the 4000 kilometres from Perth to Sydney. Four years later this spawned the World Solar Challenge (WSC), the epic trans-continental sunlight-powered 3000-kilometre race from Darwin to Adelaide.

While Tholstrup’s pioneering “bathtub” tortoised along at about 30 km/h, modern solar racers can now sustain over 100 km/h and sprint up to 170. Some even carry a passenger. Numerous events, large and small, now appear on the international solar car calendar, but the WSC, now owned by the South Australian government, is still the flagship event for the maturing brainsport. Second-hand solar cars are occasionally even offered for public sale: there was one on TradeMe recently.

In a cramped concrete garage, some clever Christchurch chaps have toiled through the long winter nights to produce the skeleton of a curious vehicle. In the Canterbury University wind tunnel, the car’s carapace has also been undergoing aerodynamic refinement.

Electrical engineer Rob Glassey and his multi-talented Team SolarFern are planning to fly a lonely NZ flag competing in next year’s World Solar Challenge and the chassis has now been completed. They still have to complete the wheels, motor, body, solar panels and electrical work.

Al so in Darwin for the WSC anniversary will be a group from Hamilton’s Waikato University who are building an electric car for the Greenfleet demonstration section of the event, which provides an opportunity to showcase practical and ecologically sound transport solutions. In spite of the WSC event being “just across the ditch,” New Zealand representation has been rather sparse over the years.

Stewart Lister’s Solar Kiwi cars performed well in both 1990 and 1993 but, so far, have been the only two NZ vehicles to cross the Adelaide finish line. Despite this success, Lister failed to attract funding for the more ambitious two-seater he had hoped to build for 1996. Neville Baxter from Wellington entered the (pedal assisted) solar cycle class in 1996 and despite getting to Darwin, couldn’t finish his vehicle in time for the race. A rather novel solar vehicle design attempted by Long Bay College, an Auckland high school, failed in 1993 through lack of money, and another school team, from Hutt Valley High in Wellington, managed to actually start the race from Darwin in 2001 but had to withdraw early beca use of equipment failure.

In Christchurch, Team SolarFern leader Rob Glassey is optimistic. He attended the last WSC as an official observer, has done his homework Stewart Lister’s Solar Kiwi cars performed well in both 1990 and 1993 but, so far, have been the only two NZ vehicles to cross the Adelaide finish line. Despite this success, Lister failed to attract funding for the more ambitious two-seater he had hoped to build for 1996. Neville Baxter from Wellington entered the (pedal assisted) solar cycle class in 1996 and despite getting to Darwin, couldn’t finish his vehicle in time for the race. A rather novel solar vehicle design and has a realistic idea of what lies ahead. The recent official launch of the SolarFern project went smoothly enough in spite of an exuberant Canterbury wind trying to dismantle the display tent. The prototype SolarFern vehicle, still in its skeletal state, took bumps and turns in its stride as it was tested on the tarmac. The finish line in Adelaide is still a long way off, but Team SolarFern successfully cleared the first hurdle at the A&P showgrounds and is up, running and looking good.

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