On a soaking wet spring day at Deakin University’s Waurn Ponds campus in Victoria, under a leaden sky devoid of sunshine, two former engineering students are finally taking the solar-powered car they have painstakingly designed over three long years for a spin.
“It’s so smooth,” enthuses Angus McDonald, one of the two key designers among the 1,000-strong engineering cohort that contributed to the project, when I ask him how the vehicle, codenamed ASCEND, drives.
The car, which still has some kinks that need to be worked out, has been designed and built to compete in the 2023 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, in which teams of engineers will race their custom-designed, solar-powered cars along a gruelling 3,000 kilometre outback route between Darwin and Adelaide.
It’s the first time McDonald has had the chance to get behind the wheel of this project, after nearly three of lockdowns, COVID interruptions, a postponed race and makeshift, at-home workshopping.
He’s pleased with today’s test drive.
“We did have a couple componentry issues, which are always highlighted in testing procedures,” he says. “Any issues that occur make a successful test, because it highlights things that we need to work on and things we need to improve.”
The purpose of the World Solar Challenge is to reward those who can design a car that can run as far as possible on solar power.
“It’s an endurance test,” says McDonald. “In the past it’s been, ‘how can we input technology for solar panels into these really lightweight, condensed cars and see how far and fast they can go? But the challenge that we’re doing is, ‘how much can we actually shove all that technology into an everyday car?’”
The cars are all regulated, which means they must be road-safe by the time of the challenge. The ASCEND car, sponsored by Spanish renewable energy company ACCIONA Energía, looks much like an ordinary sports car, and is designed to comfortably seat a driver and a passenger, alongside cargo space.
The engineering team behind the vehicle used Deakin’s 3D-printing capability to make titanium componentry and majority-nylon bodywork. Each car in the challenge is allowed a maximum of five square metres of solar panels incorporated into its design. Those panels will charge the car’s battery as it drives through the desert.
Today, on the other hand, the team have charged the car from the wall – not just because it’s depressingly grey in Victoria, but because they haven’t yet integrated their solar panels into the car.
It seems unlikely, given the profusion of existing BEVs, that solar-powered cars will be a major player in the automotive market of the future – though Dutch start-up Lightyear this year unveiled the world’s first ‘production ready’ solar-powered electric car, fitted with solar panels on its roof, bonnet and boot.
But McDonald says the real benefit of the challenge is in showing what innovative renewable energy engineering and technology can do – often with commercial results.
“Quite a number of companies have actually bred from the World Solar Challenge itself,” McDonald says. “It contributes to things like battery design, fast charging, developments in solar arrays.
“By pushing the limits of the technology in races like these, it demonstrates abilities and future opportunities that car companies can get their hands on,” says McDonald.
“We know that renewable energy is able to supply our cities and our businesses with plentiful power and the ASCEND vehicle encapsulates what clean energy is capable of,” agrees Emma Reiners, General Manager of brand and marketing at ACCIONA Energia.
Head of Deakin’s School of Engineering Professor Ben Horan says it has been inspiring to see the students and the car itself progressing alongside one another.
“Seeing the students develop and grow over the course of the project has been very exciting,” he says. “In some ways I can’t imagine a more authentic learning experience for the students involved – and providing these learning opportunities is what it’s all about.”
Xander Profaca was studying engineering at Deakin when he first joined the project in March 2020, a week before Victoria went into lockdown. He has since graduated with a degree in mechatronics, but continues to work on the car as lead mechatronics engineer.
“The thing that excites me most is using so many cool technologies to construct a real, working car,” he says. “Some days coming into the workshop and seeing the car, it hits me, and I think, ‘I built that’, which gives me such a sense of pride knowing I helped bring the project to life.”