The charge of the light brigade
On Sunday, November 11, 1990, 36 fragile solar-powered vehicles left Darwin to travel 3000km across the centre of Australia to Adelaide in a race described by the organisers as “the event of the future”—the World Solar Challenge. Among the challengers was a group of Kiwis trying out their solar wings.
In 212 BC Archimedes is said to have burned the Roman fleet at Syracuse by reflecting sunlight off highly polished metal shields.
Schoolboys today apply the same principle when they burn holes in books and desks by focusing the sun’s rays through a lens.
The power of our mother star is something we experience daily, yet its full immensity is hard to grasp.
At its centre, the sun’s temperature approaches 15 million degrees centigrade —an unimaginable heat. Without its warmth, Earth would chill down to around -270°C — just a few degrees above absolute zero.
The total amount of solar energy falling on the surface of New Zealand in just half an hour exceeds the country’s entire energy needs for a whole year.
Unfortunately, most of this lavish input of energy can’t be harnessed. Thirty per cent bounces back into space; 47 per cent is absorbed by the Earth and turned into heat; 23 per cent is spent driving the water cycle (the continuous process of evaporation and condensation). Less than 0.03 per cent is trapped by photosynthesis, yet this modicum provides all the food energy for living creatures on Earth and all the stored fossil fuel energy.
The idea of tapping the sun’s energy has attracted and challenged scientists, inventors and adventurers for centuries. The idea of driving a car powered only by sunlight across the Australian continent is a recent twist, and one which proved irresistible to a band of do-it-yourself Kiwis with time on their hands and a thirst for adventure.
Stuart Lister, a semi-retired automotive engineer from Hamilton, was the king pin in New Zealand’s solar car team. He had heard about the first World Solar Challenge race, held in 1987, while driving a 2CV across Australia in a Citroen Club rally, and learned that there was to be a follow-up race in 1990. Something sparked in Stuart’s mechanical mind.
Back in New Zealand he and his wife Vivianne discussed the idea with longtime friends Linda and Gary Peace, also from Hamilton. The Peaces were enthusiastic, and the four of them decided to build a solar car and enter the race.
They knew nothing about solar technology. “Cars we had experience with, but not solar,” recalled Stuart. “Everything we thought was going to take 10 minutes ended up taking 10 days. We went down a few no exit roads.”
The car’s design was kept as simple as possible. Motive power was provided by four small electric motors (of the sort used to power motorised wheelchairs) coupled together to drive one wheel.
The body, a basic cigar shape, was built of fibreglass by a sailboard maker in Auckland. The movable solar collector was made up of offthe-shelf commercial solar panels. This meant a heavier unit than could have been made from single cells, but it was the most economical option, and it also simplified the construction task considerably.
Once completed, the wing, body and chassis were shipped to Australia, where the first serious testing began. The “solar Kiwis” were getting ready to fly.
In early November, solar race teams from nine countries began gathering in Darwin. For most, the first challenge was the weather. In the week or so before the starting date, a tropical storm was unleashing a damp heat that was too much for the comfort of even the Hawaiian team. The sun burned from a clear sky all day, but in the evenings ominous black clouds gathered, and the locals reminisced about previous storms.
As the starting date approached, the Kiwi team grew to nine. There was Stuart’s brother Ian, a retired dairy farmer from the Waikato, Gerry Quinn, the irrepressible team jester, Don and Lesley Cameron, a father and daughter sightseeing duo who offered their car and caravan as race support vehicles, and Dave Giles, a manufacturer of motorised wheelchairs and general electronic whizz.
The Kiwi team plan was to use four solar car drivers, Stuart, Vivianne, Gary and Gerry, with each driving a little over two hours every day. Don and Lesley were assigned a quartermaster function with their car and caravan. Linda, who professed to be too claustrophobic to get into the solar car, Dave, and Ian, were to be drivers of the support vehicles, and act as pit crew, radio operators, navigators, and just about everything else.
To compete in the 1990 World Solar Challenge, vehicles had to comply with a set of rules. Principal among these were:
- maximum dimensions to be 6 metres long by 2 metres wide by 1.6 metres high. Minimum height to be 1 metre.
- sunlight to be the only source of power for racers.
- battery capacity limited to 5 kilowatt hours. Battery charging from the car’s solar array allowed for two hours before each day’s start and two hours after each day’s finish.
- the vehicle’s solar array may not exceed 4 metres long by 2 metres wide by 6 metres high, unless it is a two-passenger car, in which case the solar array may cover the entire car.
- seat belts, horns, turn indicators, tail and stop lights, and a rear vision system must be installed.
- the vehicle must be able to stop from a speed of 30kph in a distance of 22 metres.
- the vehicle must be able to pass a large truck (road train) travelling in the opposite direction at 80kph on a narrow two-lane highway, without losing control, at normal wind speeds.
- the official weight of each driver shall be 80 kilograms. If the weight of the driver is less than 80kg, ballast will be added to make up the difference.
- racing may only take place between the hours of 8am and 5pm.
During two days of intense scrutineering, the solar cars were weighed, measured and examined to ensure that they conformed to the rules of the race. Batteries were sealed with tamper-proof seals, and the cars passing inspection were impounded until track tests could be conducted.
Drivers were weighed and tagged with non-removable wrist bands. Those under 80kg were given bags of lead ballast to make up the difference. (The accepted strategy among drivers seemed to require an enormous thirst just prior to weighing, and good bladder control till afterwards.)
The first day of scrutineering went rather slowly, with only 14 of the cars being passed. Lengthy discussion and debate ensued over interpretation of the rules. Honda, which had built two identical sleek, silver machines, wanted to switch cars during the race. Another team asked if it could carry extra solar panels in a support vehicle, to be attached to the solar car when stationary. Both requests were turned down.
Some teams, such as one from Darwin’s Dripstone High School, deliberately failed their initial scrutineering test and paid the $100 penalty to allow more time to work on their car.
Dripstone, as well as entering its own car, was playing host to a Hawaiian school team. The 10 adults and 14 students from Konawaena High School were no strangers to solar car racing, and earlier in the year had won the chance to represent Hawaii in the Australian race by beating five other Hawaiian school solar race teams.
The construction of the Hawaiian car involved state-of-the-art bicycle and sailboard technology. Carbon fibre sailboard masts and ski poles were lashed together “Hawaiian style” with carbon fibre rope and epoxy resin to give a frame that was very light, strong, and flexible enough to need no other form of suspension to cope with the bumps.
Solar Kiwi FM 898 was passed by the scrutineers with flying colours. In spite of drinking plenty, Vivianne was required to carry a bag of lead when driving. Gerry was exactly the right weight, and therefore able to drive unleaded; Stuart was slightly over, and Gary was heavier than ideal, in spite of his diet.
Some of the very small drivers, such as the Hawaiians, had to struggle just to lift the weights required to bring them up to the 80kg standard.
Saturday, November 10—the day before the race—was set aside for the speed, brake, and stability testing, carried out at a race track on the outskirts of Darwin.
Police radar was used to measure top speed as each of the cars sped down the main straight of the racing circuit, and past a 58-wheel, three-trailer road train being driven towards them at speed.
Solar Star, entered by the cocky Australian/German Star Micronics team, turned in the highest recorded speed for the day at 103kph, and established its right to pole position on the starting grid. Alongside them would be the popular Swiss team, Ingenieurschule Biel, and, just behind, two Japanese teams, Honda and Kyocera. The Kiwi car would start well back, out of harm’s way.
With the time trials and the last minute tinkering complete, the solar fleet was locked away in the basement of the Beaufort Hotel, ready for the big day. That evening, as usual, it rained. The only difference was that, come Sunday morning, it hadn’t stopped.
A 6.00am breakfast was being laid on by the organisers, with the race scheduled to start at 8.00.
At 4.30 it was raining heavily, and, peering out into the gloom, the Kiwis correctly surmised that there would be no need to hurry.
The rain had lessened to a thick drizzle by the time I parked my motorbike opposite the starting area at about six o’clock.
Umbrellas were in evidence, though few people were about. Also in evidence was damage done by the 80kph winds of the night. A large metal power pole had fallen across the road where the solar racers were due to line up.
Eventually, workers came to peer at the pole. A camera crew stood around in yellow raincoats, guarding dripping, plastic-covered cameras. Harassed-looking officials ventured briefly out, squinted upwards, and retreated, muttering to each other about TV link deadlines and sponsorship responsibilities.
Inside the Beaufort it was dry and air-conditioned, and breakfast was free. When most of the croissants had disappeared, race organiser Hans Tholstrup announced the decision to delay the race start for an hour.
A few teams, Michigan most notably, were upset with the delay, and claimed it cheated them of a design advantage their car had in the overcast conditions. I didn’t hear if they claimed an advantage in the leaping of fallen power poles, although their car, which vaguely resembled a fat yellow spider, did have the longest legs.
The power pole was removed. The weather improved, and a crowd gathered. The solar cars crept out of hiding from the basement of the hotel and lined up two by two in a Noah’s ark procession of surreal gigantic cockroaches, arachnids, and animals of the deep.
Conditions were still not ideal, but at least the rain had stopped.
Officials, sponsors, and politicians, made the obligatory speeches for the TV camera, and the brass band struck up Advance Australia Fair.
The countdown began, using an Omega watch that had been to the moon. Canopies clipped shut. Northern Territories Chief Minister Marshall Perron waved an Australian flag, and the strange looking fleet scuttled off around the corner.
It was almost an anticlimax: the quiet rustle of drive chains on sprockets and the whirr of electric motors was drowned by the noise of the enthusiastic crowd. The Challenge had finally begun.
Solar Kiwi trundled along at a stately 25kph, keeping in radio contact with the three support vehicles in the fleet. The solar car driver was to regularly relay information on battery levels, solar electric input, motor power consumption and cockpit temperature, to allow driving strategy to be discussed and then decided upon by Stuart.
Apart from a puncture, the car reached the Hayes Creek Hill without mishap, though running with the back body panel removed to help cool the motors.
Stuart, who had taken the last driving shift of the day, headed up the 1200m, seven per cent gradient slope with his fingers crossed. The car had conquered Hayes Creek twice during testing, but not in the rain, and not with low batteries.
About 100 metres from the top Stuart was forced to give up, and pulled into a roadside stopping area. Here already. having suffered the same fate a little earlier, was Adelaide’s Morphett Vale High School team with their car Photon Flyer II.
A trickle of power was still reaching the batteries from the solar cells as Stuart, frustrated at the delay, considered the options: attempt the hill again before five o’clock and possibly go a considerable distance on the southside downhill run, but risk failure, flat batteries and still a hill in the morning: or stay put, with possibly a quicker start in the morning.
Morphett had tried and failed—they had no choice but to stay put for the night.
The Kiwis gave it a go.
With only a few minutes before five o’clock, when all racing officially had to stop for the day, Solar Kin i inched its way in a zig-zag to the summit, accompanied by an impromptu haka party and cheering Morphett team members. Speeding away down the other side, the Kiwis reached a campsite several kilometres away before time was up.
Meanwhile, the Morphett team was camped, back on the hill.
Their Photon Flyer II solar car project had been horn in 1985, when the technical studies teacher at Morphett Vale High read one of the media reports publicising the first solar challenge.
It was felt that such a project would unite the school by drawing on the resources of most faculties. Skills such as public relations, marketing. public and media appearances, normally outside the curriculum, were all embraced by the project, in addition to the more obvious aspects of science and engineering.
Convinced that a challenge such as this provides real meaning to education in the age of technology, Morphett was here again, with a team of 13 students, six adults and a new car—a car that nevertheless had to make it over the Hayes Creek hurdle.
On day two the sun rose with a little more promise, and solar cells were soon recharging batteries for the 8.00am start. Breakfast was eaten (a choice of muesli or muesli), tents were packed and, at precisely 8.00am by our observer’s official timepiece, Solar Kiwi once more took to the road.
Back on the northern slope of the hill, Photon Flyer H was being readied for an assault on the summit.
With student driver Greg Couch at the controls, a drama began to unfold. In order to minimise gradient, the car crept inch by painful inch upward on a wide zig-zag path taking in both sides of the highway, controlled by the frantic coaching efforts of their team manager, John Westphalen.
At the summit the road curved off to the right and visibility was impaired. The solar car was, however, at all times in radio contact with the lead car around the corner on the other side of the hill, and the following car further back down the hill, to get warning of any approaching traffic, which could then be safely guided past.
Progress was slow but confident, until, near the corner where the road had considerable camber, Westphalen chose to keep the car to the inside of the corner on the wrong side of the road for the last few metres because the gradient was much lower.
Their observer had other ideas, and in his debatable opinion of the interests of safety, ordered the car back on to the left. The extra climb proved just too much, and the slow progress ceased.
The car had to sit beside the road for a couple more hours of charging to gain enough battery power to get over the top.
In the early afternoon a group of five solar cars, including Solar Kiwi, passed through the first scheduled media stop at Katherine, all within half an hour. One of the teams, from Queen’s University, was experiencing overheating of both drivers and equipment. The temperature in their cockpit was reaching 50°C, and drivers were filling the cockpit with water bottles as well as drenching themselves before starting out. At the media stop they also sprayed their solar panel with water to cool it down. They estimated power loss to be about one third when the panel was operating at 100°C.
The landscape now consisted of a monotony of endless dry, dusty plains scattered with sparse, spindly vegetation struggling for its life against the elements. The effects of fire were often evident, although there often didn’t seem a lot to burn. Termite hills added a little variety of contour, together with occasional rocky outcrops, usually found acting as a canvas for some outback graffiti artist.
If you had gone to sleep for an hour or two (or, as some said, for a day or two) you probably wouldn’t have missed much. The highway stretched straight ahead, disappearing into the elusive, shimmering horizon.
Peering ahead through the long curved canopy of Solar Kiwi was enough to induce an almost hypnotic state in the driver, and Gerry found that when this happened to him he had to alternately look at the position of the two front wheels and the roadside in order to keep his bearings.
It was HOT. The humidity rapidly dropped as we headed inland, and the air became very dry.
Liquid intake became a major preoccupation.
Inside Solar Kiwi, temperatures climbed high into the 40s, and, travelling at 30 to 40kph, the breeze for ventilation purposes was “not brilliant”.
For me, travelling at three or four times that speed on a motorcycle, the breeze was wonderful, though the heat was still inescapable. In some locations it struck in brief waves of almost overwhelming intensity, alternating with slightly cooler zones of ecstatic relief.
At every roadhouse or service station I would first fill up the petrol tank, then drink all I could, buy bags of ice and soak myself thoroughly under a tap. I filled drink bottles with water, then filled my pockets and helmet with ice, putting the rest of the ice to use cooling cameras and film. I left an open bag of ice within reach to eat from as I rode along, and a whole bag was often consumed in this manner before lunch.
Every service station had signs warning motorists to check petrol, oil and water, potentially a matter of life and death in these parts.
Death was, in fact, a constant feature of the landscape. The roadside was decorated with the dried remains of cows, kangaroos, and tyres.
There is an open speed limit on Northern Territory highways, and road trains are reputed not to even bother slowing down for wandering livestock and wildlife. They certainly carry impressive bumper bars that look more than ornamental.
Curled shreds of rubber, often accompanied by long curved black streaks on the roadway, underline the fact that technology is not invincible in the outback.
Just as it was getting dark on the second night, the Kiwi campfire was paid a visit by race organiser Hans Tholstrup.
Born in Denmark in 1944, Tholstrup now lives in Australia, and has built a career for himself as an adventurer.
Among his many record-breaking and trail-blazing achievements have been the circumnavigation of Australia in a 16-foot open boat, a solo flight around the world without navigation aids in the smallest aircraft ever to have made this journey, and a variety of major transcontinental journeys using various forms of transport. He has ridden a motorcycle around the world in a record 28 days and crossed the Australian continent from Perth to Sydney in the world’s first solar car in 1982/83.
After talking about the race and the weather, our discussion turned to more exotic topics: rockets, for example.
According to Tholstrup, the technology of rocket launchers is out of date.
“Rockets are just not very efficient. Now, with a magnetic levitation system, and a rail running to the top of Mount Everest—no, that’s sacrilege, K2—and a reusable sled, only a very small rocket would be needed to get out of the Earth’s atmosphere.
“Don’t forget, if we don’t break the speed of light, if we don’t emigrate to a new solar system, then it’s total extinction.”
Linda Peace commented, “Not before the end of the race, I hope.” Someone else added, “As long as there are no flies up there!”
Hans carried on unperturbed: “I have difficulty with the greenies when they want to stop the technology that will give us the speed of light, that will enable us to send Noah’s Ark out there, so at least we all have a purpose in life.”
A short discourse on politics led to money.
“I want everybody to see how important it is to put R & D money into an event like this, rather than just some institution where people get $100,000 a year doing basically nothing. The first solar challenge created SunRaycer, and SunRaycer created G.M. Impact, the only electric breakthrough. The US Department of Energy spent 186.4, or 184.6, I can’t remember which, million on electric vehicle development from 1980 to 1989. Somebody asked what they got out of it, and nobody could really answer. Now the US have Impact and SunRaycer, but they got them because they went to Darwin, and that cost the US Government nothing. So the 186.4 million achieved nothing.”
Leaving the Kiwis slightly breath less, Hans Tholstrup raced off into the night.
On day three the weather was even better and the distances travelled increased. Starting off just behind the Kiwi team was Aisol, a Japanese entry. Although the original line-up for the event listed a solar steam vehicle and a mythical water-powered car, Aisol was the only vehicle to start the race attempting to use anything other than a photovoltaic power source. In addition to the normal solar cells, it had a mirrored collecting dish which provided focused solar heat to run a small Sterling heat engine driving a generator. A truly beautiful piece of machinery, it proved, however, to be too heavy for the small amount of power generated, and the team decided to remove it and run on solar cells alone.
Solar Kiwi suffered a broken rear axle mid-morning, causing a half hour delay, but then had a clear run to Dunmarra.
At about 6.00pm, Bill Boyd, the event medical officer, drove past, checking up on team health and delivering updated information on the race progress.
The leaders at that stage were: Biel, Honda, Michigan, West Washington, Hoxan and Crowder. The rest of the list was incomplete, as the phone had cut off while he was still scribbling.
Two days later, as the Kiwis were approaching Alice Springs, the Swiss entrant Spirit of Biel-Bienne glided into Adelaide to win the Challenge after 46 hours on the road, giving them an average speed of 65kph.
Morphett Vale had retired from the race with a cooked motor, and were heading back to Adelaide feeling frustrated but philosophical. The irony was that their old car from 1987, now updated and raced by Annesley, another school team, was on the road and performing well.
Five other teams had also withdrawn from the race. The most spectacular of these was the Danish team, whose car was destroyed completely by a whirlwind, known locally as a willy-willy. Their driver escaped unharmed, despite the car being hurled through the air a considerable distance.
Day seven saw Solar Kiwi on the road behind Dripstone, Sofix, and, further ahead, a duel between Hawaii and Waseda.
With a very long way between fuel stops, I headed carefully forward without any usual backtracking and reached the Marla petrol pump with a low tank, then refuelled and headed on to the Cadney Homestead media stop.
At Cadney I met observers Adelle Milne and Anthony Scholz, who were waiting for transport. They were sitting in the shade discussing the teams they had encountered.
One of these was Dimitri Lajovic and his family. Their vehicle, described as a cross between Darth Vader and a mobile dustbin, was essentially an electric bicycle without pedals, towing its solar array as a trailer behind. A piece of tinted plastic was wrapped around to provide streamlining and protection from the elements.
Dimitri’s unlikely vehicle was going well. “They passed the Star team doing 120km down a hill,” recounted Milne. “Star was doing 100, and Dimitri passed like they were standing still, just flew through those hills and were gone!
“Dimitri fell off on the rough patch of roadworks near Tennant Creek. That was funny. He just said, ‘Prop me up again.’ No worries, mate, must be high impact plastic!
“To open the door you peeled the sticky tape off; to put it back on you just taped it up again. A pity he doesn’t have much battery storage. Given the right conditions he could win this race.”
That night I camped just out of Coober Pedy with the Annesley College team and the original Photon Flyer.
Annesley College is an all-girls boarding school from Adelaide. They became interested in the race through the exploits of Morphett Vale in 1987, and ended up buying and modifying Morphett’s car. The whole school worked on the project for two years, with students doing the planning and building, as well as fundraising and seeking sponsorship.
Like Dripstone and Morphett Vale, they saw the Solar Challenge in terms of its educational merits. Dripstone’s headmaster Ruary Bucknall explained to me a few days later how his school’s entry had come about. Inspired by the 1987 solar event, he had approached Northern Territories University to ask whether his school could to anything to assist with their 1990 entry.
Instead, he was offered the remains of the 1987 NT car as a start to building his own entry. When General Motors also offered support, he started to take the idea seriously.
The school purchased secondhand solar panels and started work on the vehicle. They experimented, changed design several times, and fitted the final suspension only two days before the start of the race. The electrical system was installed the day before scrutineering. “It was a bit of a rush, that’s why we had a few breakdowns at the beginning. We were still really field testing.”
The school gained support from many small businesses in Darwin.
Among other things, they were given some 450 ball bearings, various lengths of drive chain, and all the nuts and bolts they needed.
Bucknall felt that the project helped to pull the whole school community together, with people taking part who were not normally interested in school activities.
“Schools should be exciting places. Something like this helps to get the kids out of the classrooms and gives them a physical and tangible exercise.
“Our catering crew are doing practical home economics instead of theory. Our first aid crew are not just learning health and hygiene, they are putting it into practice. The radio crew are learning about communications and how to operate gear, and the pit crew have learnt so much about mechanics and electrical systems.”
Because the oldest Dripstone students were only fifteen, and not old enough to hold driving licences, Bucknall had to co-opt three of his previous year’s ex-students to act as drivers. One got his licence a week before the event.
By day nine Solar Kiwi had reached Woomera, and speculation was rife as to which cars in this bunch would get to Adelaide before the official deadline of the following afternoon.
Under ideal conditions, all would have had a good chance based on performance so far, but the weather was starting to look doubtful. There were gusty crosswinds and clouds closing in from the north. Those ahead had better conditions, but the Kiwis were caught by the edge of the storm.
They called a halt at a bleak metal dump beside the road and prepared for a damp and windy night.
Up ahead, at Port Augusta, Annesley College were established for the night in a caravan park, having fallen behind Dripstone and Hawaii during the day.
Expecting this to be their last night on the road, the team was in high spirits and often in song. Team manager, and also school music teacher, Peter Gubbins called a team meeting and they all squeezed into a small caravan made for half that number and got down to business. Then came a session of notable anecdotes, traded insults, and well deserved praise. Some team members were momentarily moved to tears. This had been more than just your average school sports trip.
On day ten the Hawaiians and Dripstone High were doing battle with each other, the weather and the traffic.
Winds gusting from the west rocketed across the road, and passing trucks, seemingly more impatient and aggressive in the south, created traffic vortexes as they sped past, buffeting the fragile solar cars alarmingly. The canopy was completely dislodged from Aquila, Dripstone’s car, by one such encounter.
Hawaii finally overtook Dripstone, who then trailed them for the remaining few kilometres into Adelaide.
The Hawaiians reached the finish line at 4.40pm and Dripstone at 4.54pm—just six minutes before the five o’clock deadline.
Annesley College, also held up by the weather, missed the deadline and were forced to camp one further night out on the road. The Kiwis, nearly half a day behind Annesley, had battled strong headwinds into Port Pirie, the home of the largest lead mill in the world.
The temperature had dropped from a high of 47° in Goober Pedy to around 9°, and the change was keenly felt by the drivers.
“The cold wind blowing into the car whistled straight up your legs, and we had to keep making potty stops,” said Linda Peace.