China team makes debut in global solar energy race

In its first test against the global best, mainland team fails to place but takes home key lessons

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 4:54am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 4:54am

A team from China, the world's biggest maker of solar panels, has made its debut in the world's biggest event for solar powered vehicles.

At the World Solar Challenge in Australia, a biennial event which ended this year on October 13, China entry Sun Shuttle finished a modest 19th out of 23 teams in its category tackling the 3,000 kilometre-course from Darwin to Adelaide over eight days.

Designed by the Beijing Institute of Technology, the nation's top university for vehicle engineering, the single-seat, four-wheeled Sun Shuttle was made of carbon fibre and cost 1 million yuan (HK$1.26 million), said team leader Zhang Youtong, professor of vehicle engineering at the institute and dean of its Laboratory for Clean Vehicles.

The vehicle was designed by 10 students and three teachers, including Zhang, and made in conjunction with a manufacturer. The three teachers were also the drivers in the competition.

Despite Sun Shuttle's ranking in the contest, Zhang said he was satisfied with the team's performance, as they had started to prepare for the event only nine months ago when a solar power company agreed to sponsor them.

They had to tailor-make a vehicle to meet the competition's requirements and also study rules and routes that were new to them.

"Typhoon Usagi delayed the arrival of our car for a week, so we had less than a week to test it on the road, and get used to driving on the left under hot weather and against the prevailing wind," Zhang said.

The institutes' students have a strong track record of winning awards at new energy vehicle design competitions, including the Honda Eco-power Competition in China and the Shell Eco-marathon Asia.

But they had not built a solar electric vehicle before due to financial constraints as well as technical challenges.

Sun Guan, responsible for Sun Shuttle's electrical engineering and competition strategies, is a postgraduate student and once managed the student club for "intelligent" vehicles at the institute. Sun said they naturally wanted to make their vehicle extremely light, strong and with minimum air resistance but it had been difficult to obtain some of the high-end materials and manufacturing technologies on the mainland.

Sun Shuttle drove at an average speed of 60km/h during the competition, compared to 90km/h by the champion team, Nuon from the Netherlands. Sun Shuttle weighs 270kg, while the lightest solar electric vehicles in the world weigh about 145kg, according to Zhang.

Zhang said they had a great deal to learn in terms of experience, technology and innovation. "We had two goals going into the competition: to learn about international levels and to test out our own technology."

Three teams from the Netherlands participated this year and took first place in two categories. Sun said that in previous years, vehicles in the main category were required to be single-seat and three-wheeled, therefore the seat was always placed in the centre.

This year the rules were changed to four wheels, but the Chinese team did not think of placing the seat on the side, which was what the Dutch team did, to reduce air resistance. "They did what we did not think of and did it well," Sun said.

Zhang said teams from developed countries had spent more on their vehicles than the Chinese had and started their designs earlier.

Other countries also treated the field with more importance. "In China it is still considered more of a concept, a novel idea that is far from useful," Zhang said. "But after this competition, which involved driving in heavy traffic on the highway, I think the vehicles are not that far away from our daily life."