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Solar-powered cars to race across Australia

Solar-powered cars to race across Australia

Posting in Energy

NASCAR may be faster, but the cars in solar races are maneuvering toward the future. Stanford University students hope their sun-powered vehicle speeds its way up front in the Outback.

Ford and SunPower made headlines last week with plans to sell an electric car/solar installation combo pack. Essentially, the photovoltaic panels on top of the home would help power the electric Ford Focus in the garage, without electricity bills going through the roof. For students at Stanford University, the solar-powered car concept is a more direct one. They put the solar panels right on the car's roof. No house required.

The students have big plans in October to race across Australia during the World Solar Challenge, a chance every two years for teams to test their solar cars in the Outback. On three wheels, their 375-pound car will bisect the continent, covering almost 1,900 miles between Darwin and Adelaide.

Range anxiety in the Australian wilderness? You betcha. Race rules allow cars to have just 5 kilowatts of stored energy. For comparison, the Nissan Leaf has a 24-kilowatts battery pack under its hood. The idea is that the solar vehicles will rely almost completely on the sun as well as recovered kinetic energy from the car itself. At sunset, the drivers turn off their engines and pitch their tents.

Not every car makes it. In 2009, 15 of the 25 cars participating didn't finish. Stanford's team came in last. This year they hope a new motor with 98 percent efficiency and glass encapsulated solar cells will give them an edge come race time. Unlike the plastics typically used, the team says their car's thin, flexible glass will not absorb light waves that the solar cells could otherwise convert to electricity.

Grad student Ian Girard says in Stanford News:

It's an opportunity to test technologies that can help the world. [We] figure out which ones work and which ones don't. It's a test bed between the laboratory and the real world.

The technology has improved since 1987, the year of the first World Solar Challenge. That year was also the last time Americans placed first, with a General Motors car averaging 42 miles per hour. The 2009 winners from Japan's Tokai University (right) cruised into Adelaide at an average of 62 mph.

Competing with the Stanford SolarCar are five other American teams from the University of Michigan, MIT, UC Berkeley, Principia College and Houston High School in Mississippi.

For more on the Stanford Solar Car, check out our exclusive video from April:

[video=6212812]

Central Australia is sunny in October and hot. Here's hoping none of the 41 teams racing forgot about air conditioning.

Related on SmartPlanet:

Image: Flickr/CaseDeQueso, L.A. Cicero, Tokai University

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure