ANU students shone in a recent solar race through the Australian outback, illuminating the bright future of solar-powered vehicles.

It begins and ends on the red road that connects Darwin and Adelaide. Three thousand kilometres of gum trees, burnt sienna views and the occasional rock rat or black wallaroo form the unique backdrop to the World Solar Challenge.

First run in 1987, the prestigious biennial race challenges some of the greatest renewable energy minds from around the world to engineer a completely solar-powered vehicle and race it across central Australia.

The cars often look as though they have been plucked out of a strange alien world — small, compact and, ideally, light. Participants not only compete to finish the race within a 50-hour time limit, but also push solar engineering further each time.

The Australian National University Solar Racing Team is no stranger to this sun-fuelled adventure but, recently, their creation made it to the finish line for the very first time.

The ANU team completed the 3,000 kilometre solar race for the first time. Photo: ANU Solar Racing Team

President of the ANU team, Isaac Martin, says they have come a long way since they first participated in 2017.

“This is the third time we’ve competed. The first time the car was pretty much made out of duct tape,” he says.

“And then the second time, the team managed to figure out a car with a chassis, but they were finishing the car while they were up in Darwin and didn’t get to drive that much.

“But this time around, we actually did some testing of the car in Canberra beforehand, so there has been this constant progress.”

Appropriately named ‘Solar Car 3’, their latest creation took the team the furthest they have ever raced. They reached the Katherine Control Point and made it over the finish line — although issues with the car and smoke from nearby bushfires meant they couldn’t finish within the competitive rankings.

Footage: ANU Solar Racing Team

That’s not to say the ANU team didn’t face other challenges along the way. Isaac says that the placement of the car’s battery was a difficult design element the team had to navigate.

“The car’s very thin wing shape makes it tricky and the battery is usually quite bulky,” Isaac explains.

“Because the drivers sit at the back, we need to put a lot of weight at the front for balance, which is where we wanted to put the battery. But to do that, you have to make the battery really thin, which is not easy.

“The batteries are made of 400ish cells, which are a bit bigger than a double A. Instead of stacking them upright, which is usually what’s done, we stacked them horizontally. This is really difficult, but it turned out really well.”

The cars often look as though they have been plucked out of a strange alien world. Photo: ANU Solar Racing Team

But it wasn’t until the race began that the team faced their first major complication.

“On the first day, because our wheels were misaligned, that created wear and our tires blew,” Isaac says.

“The technical support team trailer lights had stopped working, so they had to pull over to fix that. But when we broke down, they weren’t there with our tools. We ended up having to ask some random people to help us.

“We eventually managed to fix it, but that used up a lot of our battery, which meant we couldn’t keep up the next day.”

Despite the breakdown, the Coober Pedy heat and the idiosyncrasies of this solar-powered marathon, Isaac says the team competed with high spirits — describing the moment they crossed the point no other team had done before as simply “amazing.”

“Day three and day four were so fun. We had no issues and were just flying along through the Northern Territory, and we just felt so supported by everyone,” he says.

“Crossing that Katherine checkpoint was so exciting, and even when we crossed the finish line, there was a great community atmosphere. It was just a really fun experience to meet people who have the same interests from across the world.”

Isaac Martin, says they have come a long way since they first participated in 2017. Photo: ANU Solar Racing Team

As for what the future holds for the ANU Solar Racing Team, Isaac says their big goal is to have an impact on renewable energy that extends beyond the challenge itself.

“For me, the team has three key features. It’s building a community of passionate people about renewable energy and sustainable transport. The second is focused on the Canberra community — showing kids what’s possible and showcasing solar energy.

“And then actually creating and building technology that can be used in the industry.”

Andrew Blakers, Professor in the ANU College of Engineering, Computing and Cybernetics, says that the Solar Challenge and ANU team are playing a significant role in shaping a world where we race with the sun – not against it.

“Solar car racing has a large impact on the public perception of solar power,” Blakers explains.

“And solar on car rooftops is one more useful application to deliver startling average speeds for racing cars. Solar together with wind are driving fossil fuels out of the global energy system.”

For the student solar racers, hopefully this success is just one of many days in the sun.

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