Imagine a buggy with amateur solar panels on top.
This is what some competitors looked like in the first South African Solar Challenge ten years ago. Just seven teams entered the event. Only one international team made the journey to SA, and they faced no real competition from the local entrants.
It’s a very different scenario today.
The 2018 Sasol Solar Challenge sets off from Pretoria in September with more than a dozen solar racing teams. They have come for the exceptional sunlight that makes SA one of the best venues for a solar endurance event.
The sun’s energy will power some of the planet’s most innovative vehicles as they compete over 2 500 km and eight days.
Their solar panels are at the cutting edge of energy technology and stretch over the entire surface of the unique knee-high cars. The driver sits in an aerodynamic cockpit. Every inch of electronics, carbon fibre, aluminium and steel is as customised as the parts on a Formula 1 car.
Physicist and computer engineer Winstone Jordaan started the solar challenge in 2008. He was an early electric vehicle (EV) entrepreneur and set out to stimulate the EV industry in South Africa.
But how do you inspire research, development and investment in an industry that doesn’t exist? Jordaan found the answer at the World Solar Challenge in Australia in 2005.
“I wanted to bring the technology home, and I wanted South African universities to be inspired to show that we can compete with the best in the world – not just for sunshine but teamwork, innovation, materials, science, electronics and sheer ingenuity.”
Jordaan is still in charge of the event and laughs at memories of the first challenge.
“It was a motley crew of enthusiastic amateurs who did their best but their cars weren’t very efficient. The best local performer only managed 500 km over the entire eight days of the event, and you could pack the whole convoy of people into a bus.”
By contrast, in 2016 North West University completed 3 542 km and held their own against the top global teams to finish in fourth place. The winners were the world champions, the Dutch entry Nuon, who broke a four-year record by completing a massive 4 716 km in a vehicle that turned heads with its sleek high-tech lines.
The event convoy now tops 350 people including support teams, medical staff, media vehicles, TV crews, caterers, mobile weather stations and specialised analytics teams.
The Sasol Solar Challenge route has also evolved from a big loop around the country to a journey from Pretoria through the Free State, Eastern Cape and Western Cape, to a new finish line in Stellenbosch.
After struggling for four years on tight budgets, the event attracted Sasol as title sponsor in 2012, a partnership that has endured to this day.
“We were drawn to an extraordinary event built upon a coalition of engineers, scientists, mathematicians, software and data experts, logistics specialists and communicators,” says Elton Fortuin, Sasol Vice President, Group Communication and Brand Management.
“Everybody involved is at the top of their game and aiming for constant innovation as they test ideas and technology in tough real-world conditions. This is the commitment and skill and energy which we recognise at Sasol, and which South Africa needs to reach its industrial and energy potential.”
The event runs on public roads, sharing space with trucks and regular traffic, and passes through multiple small towns, to the fascination and excitement of local communities who come out in their thousands to witness science and technology in action.
The first international entrant was Japan’s Tokai University, ranked 11th in the world at the time. They won the 2008 event, which helped them raise enough money to build a new solar vehicle that won the World Solar Challenge the very next year.
Tokai went on to be a multiple winner of the SA and world solar challenges, and has always been popular with local crowds. It is credited in many ways with helping to put SA on the solar challenge map.
International teams are drawn to the SA event by the challenge of diverse conditions as teams must prepare for baking sun, violent storms, high winds, changing road surfaces and a drop in altitude of nearly 2 000 metres.
It’s the ultimate technology test and a motivation to develop some of the world’s most innovative energy technologies. Solar cars are first and foremost, full battery electric vehicles, and the technology developed by these teams will be seem in some form in the electric cars of tomorrow.
Events like the Sasol Solar Challenge accelerate research into more efficient solar cells, solar panels, maximum power point trackers, batteries, and battery management and protection systems. Some universities also design and build their own electric motors (reaching efficiencies of up to 98%) and drive innovations on lightweight and composite materials. The Sasol Solar Challenge also shows the importance of data and diverse information sources linked with skilled computer and data scientists.
“Today, the performance and efficiency of electrical systems is often more about the software and modelling algorithms built into the hardware,” says Jordaan.
In 2018, some of the teams will also be exploring and testing semi-autonomous vehicle technology during the Solar Challenge.
World leaders in renewable energy, energy storage and energy conversion work with SA and international teams to test their technology innovations during the Sasol Solar Challenge, much like auto manufacturers do with the Formula 1 series.
In 2018 a record number of highly-competitive teams will return to SA to test their solar vehicles in an event that is now firmly fixed on the international solar racing calendar. Entries are expected from South Africa, Australia, China, Japan, The Netherlands, Turkey, United Kingdom and the USA.
Each year the regulations get tighter, prompting ever more innovation in solar, electrical and mechanical engineering. The maximum size of the solar arrays is being slashed from 6 m2 to 4 m2.
“This is a community committed to innovation and they will respond to the challenge with even better technology, aiming to break more local and international records. As we make it harder they just get more innovative, and the whole energy and electric vehicle industry benefits from that,” says Jordaan.
Sasol has helped to mould the event as an inspiration to learners and all South Africans to appreciate and embrace science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
In 2018 Sasol will sponsor two teams from South African universities who haven’t competed before. They will be mentored by Sasol engineers, and more experienced South African teams, as they acquire and apply skills in engineering, electronics, engineering, logistics, business, planning and communication. They’ll compete side by side with global pioneers in a range of fields, giving them access to expertise and networks that will help build their careers.
This year will also see legacy projects introduced to the event to ensure the communities in towns along the Sasol Solar Challenge route see long-term benefits in their regions.