Fastest Solar-Powered Car


The Nuna4 is fourth in a line of single-seat racers built to conquer the annual Panasonic World Solar Challenge, an 1,865-mile sprint across Australia's vast sun-soaked outback. The three-wheeled Nuna4's 65-square-foot upper surface is encrusted with 2,318 photovoltaic cells. The cells charge a 66-pound lithium-polymer battery pack, which juices a 7.5-horsepower direct-drive electric motor in the rear wheel. 

To sustain 80 mph, the Nuna4 (a slight 420 pounds, plus driver) uses no more electricity than a household vacuum cleaner. Its alien design is the work of 11 students at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, where people know the importance of maximizing the sun's rays. This year's Solar Challenge gets underway on Oct. 21, springtime Down Under.

GM Sunraycer

The Sunraycer was a solar powered race car designed to compete in the world's first race featuring solar-powered cars. This race is now called the World Solar Challenge. The Sunraycer, a joint collaboration between General Motors, AeroVironment, and Hughes Aircraft, won the first race in 1987 by a huge margin. One of its drivers was Australian Touring Car racer, John Harvey.

The Sunraycer project started with a request from GM's Australian division to GM Headquarters to participate in the upcoming Solar Challenge. This race, to be held in Australia in late 1987 would feature purely solar powered cars. Roger Smith, the CEO of GM, was immediately interested in the idea and he agreed to fund a study to see if a solar powered car could be built within 10 months. Smith hired AeroVironment to do the study. A month later, AeroVironment engineers concluded that a highly competitive car could be built within the time available. AeroVironment, led by their famous owner/engineer Paul MacCready was given the contract to build what would be called the Sunraycer.

During the conceptual process, the constant goal was to create a very low-weight and ultra-low wind resistance vehicle. With this in mind, AeroVironment produced a design (resembling a futuristic streamlined cockroach) that proved to be very lightweight (only 585 lb (265 kg)) and created a very low drag co-efficient (Cd: 0.125). Sunraycer was fast and capable of a top speed of 109 km/h (68 mph).

A total of 8800 solar cells were manufactured and installed by a team, from Hughes Aircraft, which had a great deal of experience with photovoltaic cells used in the many communications satellites that they designed and built. At high noon, the car would generate about 1500 watts of power.

The engine was created for the Sunraycer by GM using a brand new magnetic motor based on Magnequench magnets recently invented by the GM physics department. This new motor was lightweight and efficient motor; GM stated its motor efficiency was around 92%.

Aside from the driver, the single heaviest element in the car was the Hughes battery pack that utilized silver-oxide batteries. These batteries were included to provide extra power when passing trucks, to smooth out the performance of the vehicle, and because the race rules mandated driving only between the hours of 8 AM to 5 PM, but the cars were allowed to charge their batteries from sunlight even when they weren't on the road. (So, the battery allowed driving during allowed hours even when the weather was overcast.)

The frame of the car weighed just 14 pounds. AeroVironment engineers made use of Kevlar for the shell of the car. The Sunraycer was tested through the spring and summer of 1987, and it had no problems. During the testing period, the team had the time to set a new world speed record with the Sunraycer, achieving a speed of 36 mph (58 km/h) from solar power alone (breaking the old record by 10 mph).

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