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Every two years, teams of students from around the world gather in Australia to race solar-powered cars across the continent. Each day, the racers set out at 8 a.m. and have eight hours to travel as far as they can along an 1,800-mile route from Darwin, on the northern coast, to Adelaide, in the south. The World Solar Challenge began in 1987 as a call to build solar-powered cars, and has grown to 42 entrants this year.
The mission of the 2011 World Solar Challenge is to “stimulate research into and development of sustainable transport.” But while the car that won the very first challenge, GM’s Sunraycer, inspired the company to work on the EV-1, the electric vehicle made famous in the documentary Who Killed The Electric Car?, translating solar car technology into reality has proven tricky. So far, the only commercial uses of solar technology in vehicles are the solar-panel equipped Prius and the Ford Focus package that comes with a discount on panels that can be used to charge the car.
The World Solar Challenge is scheduled to begin October 16, so the teams are in the process of packing up their vehicles and shipping them off to the race grounds. Here’s a look at some of the top competitors.
Japan’s Tokai University won the race last year with the Challenger (shown here), which had a top speed of almost 100 miles per hour and an average speed of about 62 miles per hour. This year, the team returns with the Tokai Challenger 2, which they say retains the same basic design principles as last year's winner while improving efficiency.
Photo via Tokai University
Nuon, a Dutch energy company, won four World Solar Challenges in a row from 2001 to 2007, but was unseated by Tokai in 2009. This year, Nuon team members say, they're “back for gold” with the Nuna6.
While many of the student teams work on the cars while juggling regular classes and internships, Nuon team members take 18 months off from the Technical University at Delft to concentrate on building the car. The Nuna6 measures just 4.44 meters, or about 14.5 feet, and is extremely efficient.
Photo (cc) via flickr user nuonsolarteam
The United States is fielding six teams (more than any other country), and among them, the University of Michigan has the strongest track record. Although the team has never won outright, it's placed in the top three four times, most recently in 2009. The 150-person team had a generous budget of $1 million to build Quantum, its 2011 contender.
Photo via University of Michigan
With half the budget and a much smaller team, Stanford University is gunning for Michigan with its car Xenith. “We believe that our solar panels might break a world record for silicon panel efficiency,” team member Wesley Ford wrote over the weekend. The team is still raising money to get them to the competition, however.
Australia’s most successful team to date, Aurora is a nonprofit focused on transport efficiency. The home nation won the event in 1999 and has placed four times since. The team still races its 2005 runner-up, the Aurora 101 (shown here), but is entering a new car, the Aurora Evolution, in this year's challenge.
Photo via Aurora