Imagine a buggy with amateur solar panels on top.
This is what early competitors of the first South African Solar Challenge in 2008 resembled.
Just seven teams entered the event. Only one international team made the journey to SA, and they faced no real competition from local entrants.
It’s a very different scenario today. The sun’s energy will power some of the planet’s most innovative vehicles from South Africa and abroad as they compete across more than 2 000 km in eight days.
Their solar panels are at the cutting edge of energy technology and stretch over the entire surface of the unique, knee-high cars. The driver sits in an aerodynamic cockpit. Every piece of electronics, carbon fibre, aluminium and steel, is as customised as the parts on a Formula 1 racer.
Physicist and computer engineer Winstone Jordaan started the solar challenge in 2008. He was an early electric vehicle entrepreneur, and set out to stimulate the industry in South Africa.
But how do you inspire research, development and investment in an industry that doesn’t exist? Jordaan found the answer at the World Solar Challenge in Australia in 2005.
“I wanted to bring the technology home, and I wanted South African universities to be inspired to show that we can compete with the best in the world – not just for sunshine but teamwork, innovation, materials, science, electronics and sheer ingenuity.”
Jordaan laughs at memories of the first challenge.
“It was a motley crew of enthusiastic amateurs who did their best but their cars weren’t very efficient. The best local performer only managed 500 km over the entire eight days of the event, and you could pack the whole convoy of people into a bus.”
In 2019, Jordaan sold the Sasol Solar Challenge to Robert Walker, whose events company ran the 2018 event.
The Sasol Solar Challenge convoy now tops 350 people including support teams, medical staff, media vehicles, TV crews, caterers, mobile weather stations and specialised analytics teams.
The first international entrant was Japan’s Tokai University, ranked 11th in the world at the time. They won the 2008 event, which helped them raise enough money to build a new solar vehicle that won the World Solar Challenge the very next year.
Tokai went on to be a regular competitor and occasional winner of the SA and other solar challenges globally, and has always been popular with local crowds. It is credited in many ways with helping to put SA on the solar challenge map, labelling it an international standard event and paving the way for other international entrants. The Tokai University team has competed in each Solar Challenge to date.
The Sasol Solar Challenge route has also evolved.
The 2012 event was one of the most challenging routes to date, taking teams on a country-wide loop nicknamed ‘the long way around’.
In 2014 the route changed again, with daily loops added, giving participating teams the opportunity to log extra kilometres. This feature remains to this day. Nuon Solar Team from Delft University in the Netherlands took advantage of the new feature, claiming the title for the first time.
The largest diversity of local and international teams in the history of the event took part in the 2016 Sasol Solar Challenge, now bolstered by a title sponsor. A mammoth battle between the two top teams, Tokai and Nuon, had fans on the edge of their seats. Nuon claimed a second victory.
By now, South African solar car teams started coming into their own, with a team from North West University placing fourth, and going on to compete at the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge.
In 2018 the Sasol Solar Challenge celebrated its 10th anniversary, adding a picturesque stop at Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa, to the route. Teams from across the world entered, including online gaming fanatics from Hong Kong, wanting to try something different.
High school team Sonke Siyakude, a collaboration between St Alban’s College and St Augustine’s LEAP School, stole hearts with their first solar car. Their enthusiasm and sportsmanship was contagious among the other teams.
Nuon Solar Team continued their winning streak, claiming the title for the third time.
The event runs on public roads, sharing space with trucks and regular traffic, and passes through multiple small towns, to the fascination and excitement of local communities who come out in their thousands to witness science and technology in action.
International teams are drawn to the SA event by the challenge of diverse conditions as teams must prepare for baking sun, violent storms, high winds, changing road surfaces and a drop in altitude of nearly 2 000 metres.
It’s the ultimate technology test, and a motivation to develop some of the world’s most innovative energy technologies. Solar cars are fully electric vehicles, and the technology developed by these teams will be seen in some form or other in electric cars of tomorrow.
Events like the Sasol Solar Challenge accelerate research into more efficient solar cells, solar panels, batteries, semi-autonomous vehicle technology, and battery management and protection systems. Some universities design and build their own electric motors (reaching efficiencies of up to 98%) and drive innovations on lightweight and composite materials.
The Sasol Solar Challenge also shows the importance of data and diverse information sources linked with skilled computer and data scientists.
World leaders in renewable energy, energy storage and energy conversion work with SA and international teams to test their technology innovations during the Sasol Solar Challenge, much like automotive manufacturers do with the Formula 1 series.
Each year, regulations get tighter, prompting even more innovation in solar, electrical and mechanical engineering.
The 2020 event is run by a much larger management team which is hard at work putting together the event with the guidance and support of Bridgestone World Solar Challenge founder and race director, Chris Selwood.