Pushing the boundaries of solar-powered cars

23rd January 2020
Alex Lynn

Harnessing the power of solar is a hot topic for the engineering industry, with vast potential to use this power source in new technologies. Here, Marcus Schneck, CEO of norelem, discusses how standard components have their part to play in this exciting challenge.

The number of electric cars on the roads in the UK is slowly increasing, more and more drivers are opting for a hybrid or completely electric car.

In 2018, there were 155,000 electric vehicles and only 25,000 charging points across the country. This highlights a major issue with the current electric vehicle infrastructure in the UK; there are not enough charging points to service the rising number of electric cars on the road. Another concern that drivers have with electric vehicles is whether they can withstand long journeys without needing to be charged.

Due to the lack of charging points, drivers may have to plan their journeys around the charging points across the nation. To meet demand, the UK needs to build a better infrastructure that can power the charging stations required for these vehicles.

The sustainability of the electric car is also another cause for concern, as the average lifespan for a car battery is eight years or every 100,000 miles, and the cells cannot be produced in every country. In order to reduce the carbon footprint of electric cars engineers and manufacturers need to find a better way to power and charge them.

The solar-powered electric hybrid 

One potential solution is the solar-powered car. Automotive manufacturers are already trialling solar roofs for their electric cars, with some tests showing that the roof adds up to 44.5 km of range to a plug-in hybrid a day. Having a solar-powered car with electric parts could be a step towards the future of a more sustainable electric vehicle.

When you pair what automotive manufacturers are already pioneering into with the likes of the globe’s leading solar-powered car race, the World Solar Challenge, the shift from electric cars to solar hybrids isn’t too far away. In the 2019 edition of the challenge, 53 teams raced 3,000km across the outback, from Darwin to Adelaide, in cars that were solely powered by the sun.

This biennial zero-emissions race was founded in 1987 in Australia, five years after Hans Tholstrup and Larry Perkin built the world’s first practical long-distance solar car, ‘The Quiet Achiever’ (also known as BP Solar Trek). The World Solar Challenge gives invaluable insights into the capabilities of everyday vehicle technology and pushes the boundaries of energy efficiency to the limit.

In addition to the innovative solar technology, standard parts play a critical role in making this challenge a possibility, and norelem is proud to be a piece in this puzzle. norelem supported three teams participating in this year’s race, Bochum University of Applied Science, Jönköping University and RWTH Aachen, helping each build vehicles that meet the race’s stringent regulations, while complying with Australia’s local traffic laws.

Bespoke challenges, standard solutions 

Naturally, conceptualising, building and testing a car that only runs on solar power and can withstand the harsh elements in the Australian outback comes with its own obstacles. The use of standard components in this unique area of car production is crucial, as it gives engineers of the future the ability to adapt these parts that are traditionally used in other applications and offers a level of technological collaboration that’s crucial in the automotive industry.

To show just how important standard components are in solar-power engineering, norelem donated standard components such as nuts, screw and circlips that have been used in the bespoke cars from each university. Choosing parts that already exist is more cost effective than drawing, manufacturing and testing bespoke parts. Alongside this, these parts are tested, approved and available in a range of sizes. Drawings and datasheets are also supplied with the components, enabling faster production and prototyping.

The future of the solar-powered car is closer than we think - should prototype cars like the ones in the World Solar Challenge ever make it to mass production, manufacturers need to make these cars affordable, safe and reliable. The way to do this is by using standard components that can be sourced in a variety of sizes and materials with ease. This means engineers aren’t relying on a single bespoke manufacturing house and the machines they use to produce parts need bespoke tooling. To achieve this we need the right skills, but right now there’s a gap.

Supporting talent and innovation 

Engineering is crucial to the UK’s economic and societal wellbeing. 19% of the UK’s total workforce is employed in the engineering sector, and these professionals provide key solutions to major global challenges.

The latest ‘State of Engineering’ report from Engineering UK shows that the demand for engineers with a Level 3 skillset stands at 124,000, but only 22,000 students graduate at this level every year. It’s thought that 203,000 engineers with a skill set of Level 3 or more will be needed every year to meet demand through to 2024.

In the face of rapid technological advancements and a changing political and economic landscape, closing this skills gap is vital. Engineering businesses need to find new ways to nurture and support young minds.

Initiatives like the World Solar Challenge are crucial to developing the next wave of engineers, and it is vital that manufacturers like norelem can support with parts and also knowledge transfer.

Alongside the World Solar Challenge, norelem also supports other engineering challenges like the Formula Student competition, while norelem’s own initiatives include the Engineering Newcomer competition and norelem ACADEMY. The former is an engineering challenge aimed at teams of students, and the academy is there to help train students and practising engineers in different engineering disciplines.

By using standard components effectively and with the right support from manufacturers, young engineers can solve challenges like harnessing solar power and take the industry to the next level.

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