There are many things in the world not visible to the naked eye but which we know exist by way of scientific investigation or human experience – air, wind, magnetism, gravity, electricity, the human drive to succeed.
Dutch ingenuity came to the fore in the 2017 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge when the Netherland’s Nuon Solar Team Challenger Class vehicle recently won the gruelling 3,022km desert race.
Competing in the 30th anniversary bi-annual challenge, it was the seventh win for the Dutch, no mean feat, even for a team with a wealth of experience on its side.
Beginning in Darwin on Sunday, October 8, and travelling south on the Northern Territory’s Stuart Highway to reach Adelaide in South Australia by Saturday, October 14, Team Nuon’s Nuna9 crossed the finish line two days early, one hour, 58 minutes and 37 seconds ahead of its nearest rival, the University of Michigan’s solar vehicle, Novum.
But often it is the journey rather than the destination which teaches us the most valuable lessons.
For Germany’s first-time challenger, Team Sonnenwagen, that was certainly the case.
What the 45-strong team of engineering students from Germany’s largest technology university, RWTH Aachen University, in association with Aachen University of Applied Sciences, lacked in experience, they made up for in passion.
All aged in their mid-20s, with most in their last year of completing electrical, aerodynamic or mechanical engineering degrees, these are the world’s new generation of sun worshippers.
But unlike the Aztecs, the sacrifice of Team Sonnenwagen was their own blood, sweat and tears.
“We knew we would have difficulties competing with teams who have been in the solar challenge for 15 years and have very large sponsor networks,” said Team Sonnenwagen vice chairman, Niklas Kaltz.
“This is the challenge of a lifetime. Solar power and sustainable mobility are key technologies for the future. This is our small contribution to improving our world. It has helped us put our acquired knowledge into practice.”
For Niklas, e-mobility – the development of electric-powered drivetrains to shift vehicle design away from the use of fossil fuels – is a passion.
“In Germany and Europe and in Asian cities, e-mobility will be key in reducing emissions and making cities cleaner,” he said. “E-mobility is the first requirement for solar mobility.”
Getting the Sonnenwagen (Sun Wagon) to the start line of the 30th Anniversary World Solar Challenge in Darwin took two years’ of lobbying for sponsorship, planning, testing and building, before the team even faced the humidity, heat, changeable weather and gritty winds of the long desert crossing.
On race morning in Darwin’s State Square, team chairman Hendrik Lobberding was quietly confident. It was 7am and the rest of the team were having breakfast. The race would start for Sonnenwagen at 8.40am.
“We have run our weather and strategy simulations to determine initial speed. We are ready to go,” he said. “Our aim is to be the best newcomer.”
Sonnenwagen performed well in the prelude to the race, reaching 122km/h and clocking 2 minutes 15.9 seconds at an average speed of 76km/h in time trials at Darwin’s Hidden Valley race track.
Coming fifth in the trials, it was an excellent result for the first-time racers and close on the heels of solar challenge veterans Nuon Solar Team in fourth place, whose Nuna9 lapped at 2 minutes 14.1 seconds at an average speed of 77km/h.
The drivers had clocked Sonnenwagen at 130km/h and the young engineers knew it could go faster, but this race wasn’t about speed, it was about ingenuity and endurance.
Travelling at between 60km/h and 70km/h, the four drivers, armed with two litres of water, took four-hour shifts behind the wheel in a tiny, hot cabin with no air-conditioning, enclosed by a clear polycarbonate dome. They had harnessed the sun, but it also was their enemy.
“The Sonnenwagen has a vent that lets fresh air into the cab, if you drive faster the temperature is quite okay, but if it’s really cloudy and you slow down, it gets really, really hot,” said mechanical engineer and driver Marc Locke.
The road noise also was a major issue, with the endless hours of humming wheels on hot bitumen reverberating beneath Sonnenwagen’s sleek shell.
And there were bigger distractions. The aerodynamics of the Sonnenwagen had been tested in a wind tunnel, but none of the young drivers had ever experienced the giant pull of air created by a passing four-trailer, 18-axle B-Double road train.
At up to 53m long, with a maximum moving mass of 135 tonnes travelling at over 100km/h, the B-Doubles dwarfed the Sonnenwagen as it hummed down the highway.
Continues in Following the Sun – Part 2
Photos by Sonnenwagen Aachen and Vincent Ross – as per photo captions