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Thrill seekers to get their day in the sun

Date

David Sharaz

At the CIT campus at Bruce, the solar powered car Sunswift from UNSW was on display. UNSW Project Director, Sam Paterson with the vehicle.

At the CIT campus at Bruce, the solar powered car Sunswift from UNSW was on display. UNSW Project Director, Sam Paterson with the vehicle. Photo: Graham Tidy

There's no cup holder, leg room is sparse and you wouldn't want to drive it at night - but it still costs more than a house.

Meet the Sunswift IV, worth $350,000 and touted as the fastest solar car on earth by Guinness World Records.

''The record is 88km/h but that's not the fastest this car can go; we've gotten this up to 120km/h on the track,'' driver and PhD student Kristen Casalenuovo said of the car.

In Canberra for Renewable Energy Day, the Sunswift team stopped by the Canberra Institute of Technology to talk candidly about racing, solar energy, and the project that took 18 months from start to finish.

Project manager Sam Paterson, from the University of NSW, said the car would be worth a lot more if not for the volunteers.

''The materials alone are worth $350,000 but to have 40-50 students working on one project, that would be worth millions if you were paying people for their time,'' he said.

With space being tight, the driver needs to be perfectly balanced within the three-wheeled, carbon fibre, batmobile-esque device. Furthermore, the driver's weight must be low, less than 80 kilograms.

''Basically you cross your legs, sit in there and there is a steering wheel which you place in afterwards,'' Sydney-based Mr Paterson said.

United States-born Ms Casalenuovo, who is completing her PhD in photovoltaics, poked fun at the fact that this project has become full-time study in itself.

''I was doing 40 hours a week easy on this project at one point,'' she said.

Competing professionally in the World Solar Challenge - an event where solar cars drive from Darwin to Adelaide - meant Ms Casalenuovo had time, a lot of time, to bond with the mechanics of the car.

''I drove for 5½ hours straight in that car, without stopping.''

As for the cup holder situation: ''We have to use a Camelbak because you can't even tip up a cup in there [but] you just get in this alpha state and keep driving.''

There was one car that proved a challenge for the team in the early stages of solar energy according to Ms Casalenuovo.

''One car [gave] the driver [electric shocks]. The voltage is 140 volts … it hurts; it won't kill you but it hurts.

''The poor guy was getting shocked every 20 seconds, and didn't complain!''

When asked why he didn't pull over, the PhD student chimed in with a tongue-in-cheek remark.

''Anything that gets you across the finish line, you'll go those extra lengths.''

The Sunswift team will be back in Sydney this week working on the next car with an estimated release date of April of 2013. Price tagged this time at $360,000.

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