Barely three feet tall and plastered with shiny panels, Xenith looks more like a spaceship for miniature aliens than a car. But the tiny vehicle is the pride and joy of the Stanford Solar Car Project, and will carry the group 2,000 miles across the Australian outback from Darwin to Adelaide in their bid to win the 2011 World Solar Challenge.
The Solar Car Project, run by a group of 20 Stanford engineering students, will unveil Xenith on Aug. 11. "We pushed the boundaries of aerodynamics, and invented new technologies for this car to make it faster," team leader Nathan Hall-Snyder tells SF Weekly (your correspondent is also an acquaintance of his).
Xenith is a three-wheel vehicle with a lithium battery pack that can keep the vehicle running for 200 miles without sunlight. But it is mainly powered by the 26 glass solar panels that cover its shell. "They have an antireflective coating that's the best in the world," says driver Rachel Fenichel, who is one of the only people on the team small enough to fit in the car.
The team members believe their panels may break a world record for silicon solar panel efficiency, giving their car the economic equivalent of 1,250 mpg at today's energy prices. Such advanced technology comes with an equally large price tag. Hall-Snyder estimates that the car cost $500,000 to make. But the team is heavily backed by the University, and is also sponsored by corporations like Volkswagen.
The World Solar Challenge is held every two years in Australia, attracting university teams from around the world. This year's race, which will be in October, has teams hailing from Japan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Chile, though the U.S. will dominate the race with seven teams competing.
Two years ago, Stanford finished last out of the teams that completed the race, but this year it is going for the gold. "We are shooting to win," says Fenichel, "We have a very good car this year." With an average cruising speed of 53 mph, she thinks they can finish the race in four days.
Hall-Snyder is confident in the team's prospects. "Everything always breaks when we get to Australia," he says breezily, so the team plans to arrive a month before the race to make adjustments and test the car in the desert conditions.
"But really," he adds, "the biggest thing we have to worry about are the kangaroos."
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