Environment

A Chennai-built solar car is headed to Australia

Darwin is one of the northernmost points on the Australian mainland. The lush-green city of Adelaide, on the other hand, sits on the southwest coast. Driving from the former to the latter, involves driving through the vast, remote Australian outback, miles and miles of desert and sun-baked bush, and touching upon small towns like Barrow Creek, which at last count had a population of 11. The four-day route is one of the ultimate tests of a vehicle’s hardiness, user-friendliness and feasibility.

Next month, solar car makers (amateurs and otherwise) will be plying this route at the World Solar Challenge, to figure out whether or not their innovative inventions are ready for the road. Among them will be a team of 15 people from Chennai, all between the ages of 17 and 24. Sphuran Industries, made up of a motley group of environment and engineering enthusiasts freshly graduated from college, is hoping to ply a five-seater sedan that runs entirely on solar cells and a solar-powered battery, under the team name Dyuti.

This is not just idle ambition: the team already has a fully functional, blue and yellow prototype named Wattsun to show for months of research and hard work. “We bought a second-hand, 2012 model of a Mahindra Reva and took the entire car apart,” says Pavan Kapnadak, one of the team members. “We redesigned the front hood and the roof to hold solar panels and changed the electric circuit. The car had a seven-year-old lead asset battery — batteries are ideally supposed to be replaced every five years. But now, the same battery runs on a different power source, and the car has a higher range. It can be driven for 60 to 70 kilometres on a sunny day when fully charged, and the drive quality has improved too.”

It took a total of 108 solar cells laid out over the roof and hood to reach this efficiency, informs Shresth Pratap Singh.

“We have built in a kill switch as well, so you can stop the cells from charging on a day that is too sunny. You don’t want them to overcharge,” adds Arjun Venugopal, pointing towards the round push button on the dashboard of the yellow and blue car.

Why yellow? “When we bought the car, it was already yellow,” says Shresth with a shrug, “That was the registered colour — changing it would have brought up licensing issues. So we just painted it a fresh coat.” Albeit a brighter, much sunnier one that seems to suit the car as it whirs around Kilpauk’s roads at 60 kmph like a busy little bee.

A Chennai-built solar car is headed to Australia

The smooth, sturdy little two-seater, however, is just prototype number one. For the World Solar Challenge, the team is planning a car that will go 1,200 kilometres on a single charge.

Sky-high dreams

Their ambition does not stop there: the team also plans to make its chassis out of a biodegradable fibre — a mix of homogenised bamboo and other materials, that is being tested for sturdiness and crash resistance. “Our ultimate aim is to make a car that is carbon negative — that not only produces very little carbon emmission, but also has the ability to absorb it,” says Pavan, “Currently, manufacturing electric vehicles emits more carbon than manufacturing a regular one, and they ultimately run on power from the grid which is sourced mainly from fossil fuels. We want to mitigate that.”

While that dream may need further work to be realised, their current material has certain advantages — “It is very lightweight. The engine of our first model alone weighs more than what the entire new car would weigh,” says Pavan.

Though the team has its plans in place, actual production is on a halt. The reason, unsurprisingly, is lack of funds. “Some well-wishers gave us money individually, which accounted for a lot. Plus, the fact that we were selected for the World Solar Challenge is helping us get sponsors,” says Pavan, adding that it still is not enough. “The first prototype cost us ₹3 lakh, including the second-hand car we bought. Our budget for the research alone, for both cars combined, is between ₹48 lakh and ₹50 lakh.”

But things are not as dire as they seem, thanks to the team’s deliberate focus on modularity. “It means that the different elements of the car can be made separately, on a small scale — in this case, even at the cottage industry level. And then assembling it wouldn’t require a lot of space or manpower either,” explains Pavan. “Once we have all our components in place, putting it together will take us a week.”

What happens if they do not meet this target? “We will make the car no matter what. This challenge was just a way of assuring ourselves that the car really works. The next solar challenge is in South Africa: we’ll just take it there,” smiles Pavan confidently.

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Aug 8, 2020 6:41:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/eco-friendly-solar-car-invented-in-chennai/article29430893.ece

Next Story