Chasing the sun with the World Solar Challenge

By Kate Cranney

7 October 2019

5 minute read

a flat rocketship-like car zooming down a reddy orange outback road. There is a yellow kangaroo road sign in the foreground.

When you think of road-tripping through central Australia, what kind of vehicle do you picture? A beat-up campervan with faded curtains? A caravan with funky decor and a funkier smell? How about a sleek, futuristic machine that’s powered by the sun?

Every two years, teams of university and high school students from around the world descend on Darwin for a very different kind of road trip… the World Solar Challenge!

an infographic of the route map for the world solar challenge. It map says that the race stars in Darwin, NT and moves down through Katherine, Daly Waters, Tennant Creek, Barrow Creek, Alice Springs, Kulgera, Coober Pedy, Glendambo, Port Augusta and then to Adelaide, SA where it finishes.

The World Solar Challenge chases the sunshine along the Stuart Highway (Image: WSC)

World Solar Challenge: 3000 kilometres of sunshine and speed

It’s a solar-powered journey through Australia’s red centre.

Since 1987, the World Solar Challenge has pushed the boundaries of vehicle technology. The event has a star-studded list of alumni, including Larry Page (Google co-founder) and JB Straubel (Tesla co-founder and Chief Technical Officer), who says the event was a “key thing at the beginning of Tesla” and that he hired most of the initial Tesla staff from his World Solar Challenge team!

This year, nearly 50 teams (some of them with 40 members), will drive their sleek solar-powered machines from Darwin to Adelaide. That’s over 1500 participants from around the world, who will be watched by a global audience of 25 million. It’s certainly not your average drive through the countryside!

A red vehicle with a massive solar panel taking up the entire side of it. A man is on his back with his arm under the vehicle.

No scientists were injured in the taking of this photo! Scrutineering in full flight at the Convention Centre in Darwin. (Image: World Solar Challenge)

Who ya gonna call?! (If there’s something strange under your hood …)

Our scientists have played a key role in the World Solar Challenge since it began in 1987.

Apart from overseeing the scrutineering, we travel with the teams, providing expert advice and helping with technical problems; we oversee the electric vehicle chargers along the journey; and our scientist, Dr Glenn Platt, will be on the expert panel at the event finale—the Smart Grid Pitch in Adelaide.

At the finish line, Dr David Rand AM will be checking the vehicles’ batteries as they arrive into Adelaide, to make sure they’re still within regulations. David has worked with CSIRO for 50 years. He is now the chief energy scientist at the World Solar Challenge, and he’s been involved in the event since it began some 32 years ago.

It’s a big call, but we might be the world’s biggest fans of the world’s biggest solar challenge!

What’s under the bonnet? Scrutineering in the Top End

This week, the teams will gather for a week in Darwin, where scientists will scrutineer the vehicles ahead of the journey. It’s a heady start to the event. The students have spent months designing and building their cars, and our scientists will be there to make sure everything is up to scratch.

A group of people peering down and examining a tray-looking battery.

Scrutineering in action. The ‘white shirts’ (event officials) inspecting a concentrating solar collector from their 2013 car. From left to right: Prof John Storey (UNSW), Dr David Rand (CSIRO) & Dr John K Ward (CSIRO) (Photo: JLousberg).

Dr John Ward is the assistant chief scrutineer. In other words, this week he’ll be making sure the cars are above board. During the ‘static scrutineering’, the cars will be pulled apart to be inspected, to make sure they’re roadworthy, safe, and that they abide by regulations.

John started volunteering with the event in 2005. Back in Newcastle, he leads one of our research team that tackles the challenges of integrating large amounts of intermittent renewable energy into Australia’s electricity networks. But out on the road, he’ll be something of a solar-car doctor on call. He’ll be there to help teams out if things go wrong, if there’s are any curly situations.

“Some of the most interesting stories have been the overcoming of the challenges or problems,” John says. “One year, a car caught fire not long out of Darwin [no-one was hurt]. We had to put it on a trailer to Alice Springs. Then Glenn [Platt], myself and other volunteers all descended on the car, stayed up all night and we rebuilt this car and got it back on the road.”

High-tech science in outback Australia

“These cars are always at the forefront of the best solar cells, the highest efficiency electric motors, highest specific energy storage,” says John. He adds that if you want a glimpse into the future of solar-powered cars, “This is where you can see it.”

The World Solar Challenge shows the promise of solar and batteries for our energy future. The event has been happening since 1987, so we know these technologies work. We also know solar technology works because we’ve now exceeded 2 million rooftop installations in Australia, well beyond what anyone predicted! Demonstration events like this drive innovation along.

But how do we transition these technologies into the broader energy network? That’s something our researchers are working on by, for instance, modelling renewable energy in the grid.

an aerial shot of the world solar challenge. a line of cars with solar panels on their rooves on a 4-lane road. There are trees lining the road and people tending to each car

The World Solar Challenge parade at Victoria Square in Adelaide. (Image: Susan Sun Nunamaker and Sunisthefuture)

Join the solar-powered celebrations!

No matter where you live in Australia, we have you covered for this year’s Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. We’ll be updating you on what’s happening on the way via our @CSIROevents twitter.

If you live in Darwin, Adelaide or anywhere in between, you can come and see the world’s most advanced solar cars for yourself! You can event meet the team members … future Tesla creators, perhaps …

Check out the program here for more information.