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Winter 2015 Issue
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Here comes the sun

Some of the University’s World Solar Challenge team

Some of the University’s World Solar Challenge team.

The University of Adelaide’s solar car will be on display at Ingenuity
on Tuesday 27 October at the Adelaide Convention Centre.
Harnessing the power of the sun and building a vehicle worthy of the World Solar Challenge is all part of a day’s work for our engineering students.

The first Adelaide to Darwin Solar Challenge was run in 1987, long before engineering student Daniel Haynes and his mates were even born.

But it’s a monumental challenge for the University of Adelaide team he leads, which is building a car to race in this year’s event.

For a start, as the University’s first ever entry, it’s all new for everybody involved. But that is what makes it so engrossing for team leader Haynes and the 11 men and two women who are working on the project as part of their engineering studies. “It is sometimes difficult to focus on other subjects when the car is so interesting and full-on,” Mr Haynes says.

Work started last year, with a group of senior students beginning with concepts for the car. While the 2014 team members have all graduated they are still on the grid, advising their successors who will see the project out of the workshop and onto the road.

“It’s a great application of the skills they are all learning in their various undergraduate programs,” says Associate Professor Anthony Zander, Head of the School of Mechanical Engineering.

Now in its 28th year, the World Solar Challenge will run over a week from 18 October, from Darwin to Adelaide. It’s for customised cars, running on sunlight captured by a maximum six square metres of solar panels and transformed into electricity.

This is research where the rubber really hits the road, generating far more than innovations in energy efficiency. The race is about transforming the technology that drives all electric vehicles, be they hydrogen cell-powered, hybrids driven by fossil fuel and renewable energy, or cars that run on power from solar cells.

The Adelaide team is competing against researchers and racers from all over the world, with 41 competitors from Europe and Asia, the Americas and Africa, the Middle East and Australia. Well over half are from education institutions, including other prestige marques like Stanford, Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But the race itself is not the only reason to participate; big challenges are also about learning. Building the car involves serious science to engineer impressive outcomes. “There are lots of changes in the cars, with progress in the solar panels and the composites used in the structure, the batteries are better and the electronics improve,” Associate Professor Zander says.

Mr Haynes points to carbon fibre construction and the extra-lightweight solar panels as especially interesting to work with.

The solar car challenge is also preparing the team for the business end of engineering, both in project management and budgeting. They have raised $5000 through a Kickstarter campaign and secured components, notably solar panels and carbon fibre materials, from various suppliers.

But they are investments in education, not donations. “It is all excellent value in student learning experiences,” Associate Professor Zander says. And the team knows it, with members acquiring the sort of practical experience that impresses future employers.

The team come from across a wide spectrum of engineering—mechanical to mechatronics, petroleum to aerospace. Some are combining their engineering expertise with other business skills, like workshop manager Lawrence Taylor-Bonham, who is doing double degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Arts (majoring in Spanish and German) and Jordan Miller-Owen who is in his final year of mechanical engineering and finance.

But for all their energy and expertise, can they win? While the University of Adelaide team’s budget is considerably less than some teams, making it a true engineering challenge, the team believes they certainly have a shot.

Whatever happens, the real achievement for everybody involved will be watching the car cross the finish line. It’s not winning in solar car competition; it’s how you power the game.

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