37 teams from all over the world are making a go at this year’s World Solar Challenge, by traversing continental Australia in a solar vehicle. Teams need to cross 3,000 km of desert, from Darwin to Adelaide, in a single shot, relying on the sun for almost all the energy needed to make the journey. Rain and smoky conditions are making the race a real challenge by adding a layer of complexity to the largest solar car race in the world, but now on day two, Tokai University (who won in 2009) is making headway with a speedster that can top out at 160 kmh. University of Michigan and the Dutch Nuon Solar Team are also hot contenders in this extraordinary test of engineering and resolve.

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This is the 11th biannual race, which first got its start in 1987. Each team is allowed to charge their batteries to 5kW, and then are to only use the sun or regenerative breaking to make the rest of the trip. Teams begin at the same time and race until 5pm when they make camp right on the side of the road.

Many are admittedly not much more than a platform for solar panels supported by a tripod wheels and a translucent bump for the driver. And besides cleaning the car and keeping tires inflated, the cars are not to be serviced. Most vehicles have the drivers board below the raised solar “hood” and slip into a cockpit. (Good luck if they need to scratch their nose!) The driving can be tricky too — the lightweight carbon fiber bodies can be blown around in a wind or tip when taking a sharp corner.

Cars “bank” the energy that they don’t need during midday for application in the morning and during last stretch of the day. The technology is impressive, especially when considering that the cars can cruise at 90 km per hour running only on sunshine that is only 1,366 watts per square meter.

Now considering all the inefficiencies of converting to electricity and mechanical energy, the promise of solar power still has a lot left to be exploited.

+ 2011 World Solar Challenge