Pretoria – Sun, batteries, petrol and hydrogen powered the start of a 4 000km epic race on Thursday that will see a top Japanese university pit its research skills against a car designed by the University of Johannesburg and a few Pretoria enthusiasts.
Described as the one of the world’s toughest alternative energy races, the 10-day event, which started in Pretoria on Thursday, will see the vehicles travel to Cape Town, stopping in Bloemfontein and Beaufort West on the way for stage one.
On stage two the teams will return, travelling from Stellenbosch to Pretoria, via George, Grahamstown, Kokstad, Richards Bay and Badplaas.
A few hundred enthusiastic supporters watched as the team from Japan’s Tokai University with their 162kg solar-powered car set off.
The Japanese were the winners of the inaugural event in 2008, organised by the Advanced Energy Foundation.
But while Tokai University has the leading edge on research and development, a Pretoria group of enthusiasts calling themselves Startrack 6 took two-and-a-half weeks to build their vehicle.
“We’re a bunch of private individuals. We borrowed everything. We have to give it all back. I think we have to give it all back, except for the battery,” laughed team organiser Alex Volpi.
The team’s solar powered car cost R10 000 to build, and two days before the race the engine still wasn’t working.
Race director Winstone Jordaan said the aim of the event is to get people interested in science and technology.
He said there are two categories which teams can enter – the Challenge class and the Adventure class. The former has very strict criteria and covers all solar-powered vehicles. The Adventure class is open to all road vehicles using alternative fuel technologies, not only solar power.
“We’re hoping to see entry-level people get enthused by this race. We want to show that South Africa is competitive (in alternative fuel technology). We also need to attract more teams to compete.”
He said four foreign teams cancelled their participation following violence after the soccer world cup.
“We even had a team from Iran enquiring whether it is safe to come here,” he said.
Ultimately the Iranian team’s vehicle was held up by bureaucracy. Jordaan hopes the team will be able to join the race in Cape Town.
“Solar racing is developing the technology that will ultimately go into the car of the future. It’s like Formula 1. The technologies you saw there in the past are being used in cars today,” Jordaan said.
But while the race is about solar power, one team hopes to set the world record on how far it can travel on the open road on batteries.
The University of Applied Science from Offenburg in Germany wants to travel all the way to Cape Town, a distance of about 1 400km, on a set of 12 batteries. The current world record is 555.6km on the open road and 1 003.2km on a track.
The batteries, according to team member Daniel Uebelacker, are similar to those used in a conventional laptop.
The University of Johannesburg has entered a vehicle that, apart from using petrol and battery power, also makes water as it burns hydrogen.
The race is expected to finish on October 1.