A few years ago, the concept of electric cars would have seemed like a distant dream. But, now you can see companies like Tesla, Porsche, McLaren putting gasoline or diesel cars to shame using their electric and hybrid vehicles. Similarly, we now see solar powered cars mostly in Sci-Fi movies. However, there are lot institutions that are not only investing and making their own solar powered cars, but they are also using them to race each other. Let’s take a peep into the world of Solar Car Racing.
With something so revolutionary, there are bound to be a few challenges that might disrupt the sport or even crush the idea of a solar car for some innovators.
Efficiency of solar panels
One of the main challenges is the efficiency of the solar panels. The earth receives about 1300 watts per square meter. But, the solar panels cannot convert every single bit of this energy into electrical energy to propel a car. The average efficiency of a solar panel is around 20 – 30%.
This means that it can only convert about twenty to thirty percent of the energy received, which is quite a low number. Thus, the engineers are supposed to cover as much areas as possible to get one person moving. Some cars are fitted with around 6 square meters of solar panels to power it. Here is where the second and third problem come into the picture.
Solar energy is supposed to be one of the cheapest forms of energy. However, the initial cost is high. Thus, getting solar panels enough to fit a car of 6 square meters is quite heavy on the budget. Moreover, these solar panels need to have a very high efficiency. This is not easily available.
The third problem is the weight created because of these panels. With extra weight, one would need extra power to boost the car. Hence, fitting more panels is needed which in turn would again increase the weight of the vehicle. Do you see the paradox here? Fortunately, current solar panels are viable enough to support their own weight and power the vehicle too.
Not enough direct sunlight
A major problem is that the source of the energy is directly related to amount of sunlight the vehicle receives. With tall building everywhere around the city, this becomes hard even on normal sunny days. Clouds proposes even a bigger problem. So, you can possibly imagine how bad it must get at night.
A simple solution that is implemented is using a battery. This allows the vehicle to store excess energy when sunlight is available. These batteries can also be charged by charging stations that use solar panels as their primary source of energy. ReVision provides viable solutions for this.
How does it perform?
Now, one cannot mention the word ‘racing’ without first setting parameters to what the competition is about. The most common one – speed. But, as you can read above, power itself is one of the major problems. As such, the solar car had some humble beginnings. Average speeds of these cars reached up to 40 miles an hour.
But, some colleges like the university of Michigan and University of New South Wales have shattered such speeds. They have both crossed the 100 miles per hour mark. University of Michigan have reportedly achieved a top speed of 105 miles an hour with the help of their car – Infinium. University of New South Wales’ car has achieved an average speed of 66 miles per hour. They did this by traveling 310 miles on a single battery charge that was powered with the help of solar panels.
To achieve such speeds, both power and aerodynamics are important. Since high power is not achievable, engineers tend to focus on the latter. To make the most of the power, they rely on a flat and wide body. This gives them more area to fit the solar panels. Also, the thin body helps to reduce the drag faced by the car. Place has been made for a single driver since any excess weight will lead to worse performance.
These advanced aerodynamic characteristics also allow the car to make most of the battery charge. As mentioned above, the car designed by University of New South Wales went as far as 310 miles on a single charge. On the other hand, Stella, a vehicle that was designed to be a production car traveled a total of 500 miles on a single charge. However, since it wasn’t pleasing to the eyes, it never made it into production. The notable thing about Stella is that it was a family car and not made for the purpose of travel for a single human.
During some of these races, some teams have even tried to use a wind sail to try and harness the wind energy that they received. This helped them gain additional energy to drive the car forward. With cars weighing at around 250 kilograms, this was quite an easy task.
The way some of these races work is that can have a fully charged battery. After that, the solar panels charge the battery as you go along. So, to optimize performance it is essential to come with the correct racing strategy to be used. These include accurate weather forecasts, race route considerations and monitoring the power needs of the vehicle.
Monitoring the power needs is looking after the speed of the vehicle. Higher speeds require more power and thus consume more energy from the battery. Thus, the team needs to come up with viable strategy that doesn’t drain the battery too quickly yet results in a good time for the course of the race.
Another calculation that the team needs to make is how the course of the race will affect energy generation. Some parts of the course might be a shadow region where the sun doesn’t reach. Other parts may have higher altitude which leads to more power generation. Similarly, downhills will also require less energy and thus the motor need not run at this point. The technicians take all these factors into account and relay proper messages to the driver on how to optimize the battery performance and the speed.
A critical aspect of race strategy is the need for accurate weather forecasts. These help them predict how much power they can hope to generate, if at all any. Sometimes a very cloudy day can lead to the cancellation of the race.
The types of races
After all this, you must be wondering who organizes the events for these cars to race in. There are actually quite a few of them. The two most prominent ones are the World Solar Challenge and American Solar Challenge. They are often long distance races where often support vehicles are needed that gauge the terrain ahead and also come up with a required strategy accordingly. Other races include Formula – G and World Solar Rally among others.
Well, that was the basics of Solar Car Racing. Solar and electric cars may not have the majestic noise that gasoline and diesel cars have. However, they are better for the environment. The world of solar car racing is quite limited currently. However, with enough encouragement, there is a chance that soon you might get so solar powered rally cars or if possible, solar powered formula one cars.
As long as there is a demand for racing, the supply will be generated – no matter how harmful it is for the environment. This article was mainly to introduce you to the alternate world of racing using renewable energy. If we concentrate a bit more on the Solar Vehicles, we might be able to live in a world with noiseless racing, but racing nonetheless. So, you choose. Would you rather live in a world with no racing or would you rather race cars powered by renewable resources?