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Solar-powered Engineering: The Bridgestone World Solar Challenge

Driving a solar car across Australia sounds like something in a science fiction film, but every two years it becomes a reality at the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge.Cambridge_University_Eco-Racing_logo_2012

Cambridge University Eco Racing (CUER) is a student society of around 60 people, founded in 2007. They design, build, and race solar powered vehicles, with a mission to inspire and innovate. Siddharth Gupta (2014) is an undergraduate at Pembroke studying Engineering, and he was part of the team for this year’s challenge. Unfortunately due to a testing incident the car – Mirage – was unable to race, but the team were still able to observe the race, and have come away with plenty of lessons learned to pass on.

The Bridgestone World Solar Challenge is the race around which the society organises it’s time. Every two years CUER takes a solar car to Australia with the aim of driving as quickly as possible from Darwin to Adelaide, fuelled only by solar power.  A year before the race the regulations are released, but there’s more than enough work to do in the first half of the two –year cycle, finding sponsors and putting on outreach events. The dual mission of ‘inspire and innovate’ requires a considerable skill-set from team members:

“On one side there are lots of technical skills. To break it down very coarsely there’s a mechanical component to building the chassis etc: there’s an aerodynamic component, and the electrical systems which is what I’ve been involved in. That’s one aspect.  Then there’s lots of non-technical skills. Getting the team to function together – it’s a big team of around 60 people, 20 of whom actually go out to Australia, so someone has to coordinate the team and make sure work gets done. Everyone needs strong time management skills as well, as we’re doing this alongside a full-time degree. There’s a business aspect, too. All the money comes from sponsors, so we need to go out and find sponsors, make contracts with them.  We also have to run events to find sponsors, and do outreach in schools to get people interested in engineering.”

There are two classes to the race: challenger class, which CUER competes in, and cruiser class.  The cruiser class is more holistic; there are points for number of people transported, and how comfortable the car is. The challenger class is all about speed. The area of solar panels allowed on the car is strictly regulated, and the only occupant is the driver. The car starts with a full battery but after that it runs solely on solar power.  The regulations change every year, so while lessons can be carried over, each race requires a brand new car. It’s a huge challenge, and takes a lot of time and effort to organise. So why take part?

“The purpose of the race is to raise awareness of solar energy and renewable energy, but it is also about doing cutting edge research to make more efficient vehicles, and find out if we can effectively incorporate solar power into commercial vehicles. That’s what the cruiser class is gearing towards.  It’s mostly university teams that compete, and for us one of our goals is also to use it as a learning platform to gain practical skills. It’s primarily engineering students that take part, and our course is quite theoretical, so the society is a really good way to test our knowledge on something practical.”

It’s not just about the race. CUER also organises outreach events designed to get young people interested in engineering. Siddharth explained the rationale behind this part of the society’s work:

“I think that most people on the team will have been to some kind of outreach event before applying to an engineering degree, and most of us were quite influenced by that.  From a selfish perspective it’s another way of advertising, but I think it’s just the right thing to do.  We like to show off, we’re excited about it and we hope we can get other people excited, too.”

To read more about CUER and the World Solar Challenge, visit the CUER website:

Siddharth Gupta was also part of the winning team at the IET Young Professionals Global Challenge 2017, which you can read about here

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