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Competition hots up in solar car race

15 Jul 2003

Two teams are battling it out for the top spot on day three of the American Solar Challenge.

After leaving from Chicago, Illinois, on Sunday, two teams are now vying for the lead in the 10-day American Solar Challenge, a solar-powered car race across the US. With the second stage complete, the leader is the University of Waterloo team hotly followed by the University of Minnesota. The race is due to finish on 23 July in Claremont near Los Angeles, California.

The American Solar Challenge is a 2300-mile biennial race from the east to the west coast of the US along Route 66. Open to student teams around the world, this year’s race has attracted 20 cars from Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US. Powered by the solar energy alone, the winner is the team to cross the finishing line in the lowest total elapsed time.

Participants drive their cars between 9a.m. and 6p.m. every day. There are 13 checkpoints along the route where teams stop for refreshments and topup the cars’ batteries. This also gives members of the public a chance to see the solar-powered cars. (Checkpoint locations)

Having travelled 435 miles to the Rolla checkpoint in Missouri, the two leading teams were separated by 14 seconds only. The Waterloo team covered the distance in 10 hours, 51 minutes and 14 seconds. The teams will start the next stage in 1 min intervals based on the current standings.

The flat top surfaces of the cars are covered in solar cells that convert the sunlight into electricity. The race organizers say some of the cars have been built for as little as $ 50 000, but the average-cost competitive car comes in around $200 000. Technical differences aside, the organizers add that the race is one of the best ways to inspire young people to work in science and engineering.

Jacqueline Hewett is news reporter on Optics.org and Opto & Laser Europe magazine.

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