JOHANNESBURG— In South Africa, students at the University of Johannesburg have taken on the challenge of building their own solar cars and racing them in competitions. While it offers plenty of thrills, the goal behind the program is to train future experts in alternative energy.
Young engineers from the University of Johannesburg built a 300-kilogram solar-powered car. The car can go faster than 100 kilometers per hour and uses less electric power than a household kettle. The students who designed it will drive it in the Solar Challenge, a national racing competition for cars that use alternative energy.
Kegan Smith, the university's former project manager, says the aim is to make these future engineers aware of the possibilities of green energy through a real world example.
"With what we do at the moment in fossil fuels, if we continue like this, there is not going to be a future. And if we do this kind of alternative energy, the cars are one application. But the nice thing with the cars it that it's a mindset change. If you can start shaping students' mind now, it's going to change the mindset of people in general. How do you use your lights? How do you use your electricity?" explained Smith.
Smith was one of the six undergraduate students who decided to take an end-of-the-year paper design assignment a step further. The group built their own design, a hybrid alternative-energy powered car, in 2010.
Since then, more cars have been built, using both hydrogen and solar power.
Warren Larter, a former student, is the university's solar car project manager. While he does not expect solar cars to become mainstream, he pointed out that they do offer an important learning tool in the development of sustainable technologies.
"For us, it's a research thing. Our exact example is Formula One. You'll never see those cars on the road, but the technologies that go into them, you see it in every single car in every single household across the world. So that's where we are pushing it. This is our Formula One of alternative energy," said Larter.
Larter started a company that allows students to work on real-life projects fueled by industry demand. He said that alternative energies are a growing market, and more skilled engineers are needed.
"Locally, there is a lack of experts in alternative energy and in particular in solar technology. We seem to be importing a lot at this stage, which is not ideal… We should have the experts locally, so [a] project like this really pushes that. We have guys working with the solar panels, working on different aspect of the project. So instead of importing the guys and flying them in to work on this, we use the local guys, so they know just as much and can even do better than the international guys," said Larter.
Kegan Smith highlighted the potential real world application of the skills learned in projects such as the car.
"I got guys working on huge systems on the telecom sites, because that's what they did in the cars. So the experience they gain from the cars are now working towards it in the industry," said Smith.
Larter and his team of students are now working on a third car to enter the next Solar Challenge in August 2014. They want to win the national competition and then compete internationally.