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Cambridge Debuts in Solar Car Challenge

A team of University of Cambridge engineering students is using software from Paris-based Dassault Systèmes to design a solar-powered car, nicknamed "Bethany," that they hope to race across Australia in 2009. The team is using SolidWorks 3D CAD and Simulia Abaqus finite element analysis (FEA) software to develop the car, which will feature a large solar panel that converts the sun's energy into speeds of 60 miles per hour or faster.

The World Solar Challenge is a biannual event drawing about 40 teams from universities, car manufacturers, and individuals to race across 3,000 kilometers of the Australian outback. This will be the first World Solar Challenge for the team, which is named Cambridge University Eco Racing.

"When you think about it, this is just one big optimization problem to solve," said Charlie Watt, a fourth year graduate student and Eco Racing Team Leader. "The solar panels we use only generate about 1 kilowatt of power, which is what a hair dryer uses. SolidWorks and Abaqus helped us find the best aerodynamic design to reduce rolling resistance, drag, and overall weight so we could wring the best performance from the battery."

The team used SolidWorks software to model the chassis with an eye toward slimming down the profile to reduce the drag coefficient while maximizing the solar panel's sun exposure. The team explored a variety of shapes in SolidWorks to find the fastest solution, while eliminating potentially costly errors such as part interference out of the design before prototyping began. "We were able to complete the design in a virtual environment without expending any materials such as wood, aluminum, or carbon fiber, which is a huge advantage with limited time and resources," said Watt.

Watt used Abaqus finite element analysis software to evaluate the realistic stress performance of the solar car's chassis. The team used the SolidWorks Associative Interface for Abaqus to transfer their SolidWorks model to Abaqus FEA to analyze the physical behavior of different materials, with the goal of optimizing weight against performance and cost. "We looked at using aluminum, steel, carbon fiber, bamboo, birch plywood, and PVC piping," he said. "The analysis results from Abaqus showed us on screen that plywood, for example, wasn't rigid enough to withstand the speeds. Other materials were either too expensive or too unknown to pursue further in such a short timeframe. In the end, we went back to aluminum because we're more familiar with its properties."

The University Eco Racing team has already built a prototype vehicle, called the Affinity, which was the first solar-powered car to drive legally on UK roads, following its launch in June 2008.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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