Environmental issues, especially transport, are at the forefront of current political agendas. While the politicians argue, teams of engineers and scientists around the world are trying to solve the problems using a completely different approach. The rapid growth in the efficiency of harnessing solar power and the concerns for developing sustainable energy vehicles offers opportunities for a radical way of solving the long-term energy and transport problems. The dream of environmentalists such as Hans Tholstrup (builder of the first solar car) was to combine the two areas and produce vehicles powered by sunlight. His vision led to competitions where teams from all over the world design, build and race solar powered vehicles.
The most famous of these is the World Solar Challenge (started by Tholstrup in 1987). Solar vehicles race 3,000km from Darwin to Adelaide across the Australian Outback. The first race was won by GM's Sunraycer with an average speed of 66km per hour. Sunraycer demonstrated the potential of solar vehicles and what vehicles might look like in the 21st century. From this other major global events followed: Sunrayce in the US (sponsored by GM) and the World Solar Rally in Japan.
Vehicles can be purely solar or partly human- powered. The teams are not just the best engineers and scientists from the big multinationals but come from a range of backgrounds such as universities, privateers and secondary schools.
Winning these events is not everything. For many lower-budget teams, especially those from schools, the achievement of making their own vehicle and being there to compete is reason enough for all the long hours of work.
However, once the decision is made to build a solar vehicle the demands on the team members and the institution are enormous, but ultimately rewarding. A core of skilled engineers is required to ensure the vehicle is properly designed and built. During the project, team members will acquire a vast array of skills and knowledge, not least how to work as a part of a team trying to meet a very definite objective.
This type of project brings out the best in everyone. The satisfaction of completing the race, having overcome many obstacles, is immense. In Japan, Australia and the US there are many secondary schools participating in such events. They are considered so beneficial to the development of the students that they have long-term strategies for building and improving their vehicles.
In the UK there are several school-based competitions: electric racing cars at Goodwood, Rover's vehicle design challenge, and Shell's solar vehicle marathon.
Mike Duke is a lecturer at the South Bank University. For more information about solar vehicles contact the South Bank University web site: www.sbu .ac.uksolarcar