Solar-Powered Vehicle Completes First Off-Road Journey Across the Sahara

A radical, new solar-powered vehicle, claimed to be the world’s first capable of off-road driving over extensive distances without the need for recharging, has successfully completed a 620-mile (1,000km) test drive through Morocco and the Sahara. The two-seater, known as Stella Terra, was conceived by students from Eindhoven University of Technology, based in the Netherlands.

This demanding journey served as the ultimate test for the car’s lightweight frame and aerodynamic design, which harnesses energy from multiple solar panels on its roof. The vehicle boasts a remarkable top speed of 90mph (145kmph), weighing a mere 1,200kg (1.2 tonnes) and can cover at least 440 miles (710km) on a sunny day.

According to Wisse Bos, the team manager of Solar Team Eindhoven, the technology employed in Stella Terra, combining a lightweight structure with highly efficient solar panels, is a decade ahead of any existing market offerings. He emphasised the need for the vehicle to withstand challenging off-road conditions while remaining efficient and lightweight enough to be solar-powered. This influenced the design of almost every component, from the suspension to the solar panel inverters, as the team pushed the boundaries of technology.

Stella Terra incorporates a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which provides the flexibility to operate in less sunny climates but over shorter distances. The solar panels on the vehicle generate sufficient electricity to power essentials such as cooking and charging devices like phones and cameras.

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This remarkable project was brought to life by a group of 22 students, aged between 21 and 25, who took a year off from their studies to realise their vision. During the 10 day test in the challenging terrains of North Africa, from Tangier to the Sahara, the olive-green car faced a steering system failure, but this issue was swiftly resolved, according to Bob van Ginkel, the project’s technical manager.

The team behind Stella Terra hopes to inspire major car manufacturers like Land Rover and BMW to make the automotive industry more sustainable. Despite being designed to handle off-road conditions, the vehicle offers comfort due to its lightweight and non-sticking properties.

An efficient bespoke converter for the solar panels was developed, achieving 97% efficiency in converting sunlight absorbed by the photovoltaic cells into electrical charge. Stella Terra turned out to be a third more efficient than originally envisioned.

Britt van Hulst, the project’s finance manager, acknowledged that there’s still work to be done before the design can enter the market, but it presents an exciting avenue for larger automobile manufacturers to explore.

One of the primary challenges in designing solar-powered cars is the limited surface area available for solar panels. Highly efficient panels capable of powering vehicles over long distances are costly to produce. The most efficient panels on the market generally reach around 45% efficiency, while most panels are approximately 15% to 20% efficient.

The Stella Terra project operates as a nonprofit and relies on sponsors for its budget. Unfortunately, the spokesperson couldn’t provide the total project cost.

The cost of manufacturing has been a significant hindrance in recent attempts to break into the automotive market, as seen with Atlas Technologies, a subsidiary of the Netherlands-based Lightyear. Last year, the company aimed to produce solar-electric cars with a retail price of €500,000, but it declared bankruptcy due to a lack of orders. It has since re-emerged with a new model costing $40,000 per vehicle, capable of traveling around 500 miles between charges.