What Goes into a Solar Car?

I started attending the annual IDTechEx Show in Santa Clara, CA in 2011 when the primary focus was printed electronics, which was a perfect match for my role writing a column on printed electronics for Industrial+Specialty Printing Magazine. The industry has for the most part failed to live up to its promise and hype. In 2013, the year in which my column disappeared when the magazine ceased publication, people were quipping that the only company making money in printed electronics was IDTechEx.

In recent years, the show has expanded its focus to a huge range of emerging technologies. Some of the co-located topics may appear to have little to do with each other, but a keynote from the Nuon Solar Team demonstrated the synergy between them.

The Nuon Solar Team, a talented group of students from Delft University in The Netherlands, designs and builds the Nuna series of solar cars. They have produced impressive vehicles that have won the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, a 3000-mile race through the Australia outback, six times. 

 Nuna8, day 7 of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. Photo by  Hans-peter van Velthoven

Nuna8, day 7 of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. Photo by Hans-peter van Velthoven

Presenter Winnifred Noorlander explained the ways in which her team’s most recent car, Nuna8, takes advantage of seven of the nine topics from the IDTechEx Show. Perhaps ironically, printed electronics was not among them.

  1. Electric vehicles – This connection is obvious. Nuna is an electric vehicle that pushes the envelope on emerging technologies, some of which could eventually end up in commercial EVs.
  2. Energy harvesting – Nuna is covered in solar cells that harvest energy to provide power to the car.
  3. Energy storage – A 20-kg lithium ion battery pack enables a 500 km (310 mile) range, well beyond that of commercial EVs.
  4. Sensors – The vehicle is loaded with sensors, including some that monitor the temperature in the braking disc to make sure it doesn’t overheat. The steering wheel contains motion sensors.
  5. 3D printing – Most of the car body is made from carbon fiber, which is not printed. The team did use 3D printing for testing. For example, they printed a transparent cover to examine airflow over the tires when the car is in motion.
  6. Wearables – The driver wears a smart watch and Google Glass, with a heads-up display that shows whether the vehicle is in the green, yellow, or red range while turning corners. This allows the car to push the limits of speed without going beyond them.
  7. Internet of things – The driver’s wearables are internet-connected, allowing the rest of the team to collect data and monitor the car’s progress.

At the end of her presentation, Winnifred invited other students from the team up on stage. The students represent a variety of academic disciplines, from science and engineering to business. The math expert on the team, in charge of the complex data analysis needed to optimize vehicle performance, is female. It's nice to see smart young women taking a technical role in this kind of project.