Technology

At the speed of the sun

 By Gabriella Galloro

“Onda Solare”…the mood turns good only at the sound of it, recalling instantly the summer and the walks you take by the seaside during the sunset and the sun that tanning you up makes you cheerful…

Is  one of those summer days in last July that, while listening to the TV news, you hear talking about a team: Onda Solare (“Sun Wave”) with its Emilia4, was taking part in the American Solar Challenge, the American challenge for cars powered by solar energy. The Emilia4, a car that has brought the academic and industrial worlds together, the only European car to be admitted to the competition. Seeking news every single day, trying to know the position of the Italian team compared to the others from all over the world, and then the 22 July when the race is over: Italy is on top beating all the most prestigious international  universities, like those from Minnesota and Waterloo (to name just two),  winning the Mechanical Design Award and the Best Battery Pack Design Award, overcoming the MIT and Berkeley University.
All-Italian pride, for a mix of creativity, expertise and passion that resulted in a 3000 km journey from Nebraska to Oregon fuelled solely by the energy of the sun. Since energy is  a good  story, especially in cases like this,  the only thing to do was to get to talk with someone of the team and try to tell it… but how? Let’s start with a web search – they have  a Facebook page… OK, I’ll try to write,  let’s see what happens! Fiorenzo replies to me in just a few minutes (sorry again for calling you Federico in the first e-mail); a quick exchange followed by a chat over the phone, which  it’s quicker. This gave me the opportunity to talk with two of the guys taking part in the race, Stefano Maglio, team leader, and Cristiano Fragassa, head of the project, from the University of Bologna.

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The crew is at work with the tests while the rest of the team is relaxig

The people being part of Onda Solare are just how you’d imagine they would be like, passionate and funny – I could have been chatting with them for hours – willing to wind back the tape not just to go back over the roads of America, but even further back to the time when all started because if today, there’s an Emilia4 it means that somewhere else there’ve been an Emilia 2 and a 3.
We are in 2005 when a handful of enthusiasts combine their interest in the sun with that for sport competitions. It is in that context that Emilia1 was born, a three-wheeled bicycle, with electric motor pedal assistance, which succeed in placing third in the World Solar Challenge in Australia (the biggest international competition for solar energy powered vehicles ), thanks to ateam of women only.
After two years, in 2007, work begins on a new car, Emilia2, which will then compete for the first time in 2011,  the first completely solar-powered car. This time too, the vehicles designers decide to take part in the Australian competition, and although in this occasion they don’t manage to reach the podium, the will to go higher remains sound.
Then here Emilia3 coming along, similar to an electric quadricycle powered by solar energy, with which the team takes part in the WSC, Australia (2013), in the Solar Challenge in Abu Dhabi (2015) and Marrakesh (2015), taking second place on the podium of the CSA Atacama Solar Challenge in Chile (2016), to then win  in the Illumen European Solar Challenge (2016) getting to the third place on the podium before going on to win the Moroccan Solar Challenge in 2016 and the Albi Echo Race, in Belgium, in 2017.
Is at this point that the Onda Solare’s team find itself  in the heart of Emilia-Romagna. A group that now numbers around 40 people, with different specialisations, but a single certainty: a solar energy powered car is indeed feasible.
Financed by the Emilia-Romagna Region, the project is unique in its kind: create a 4-seats with 5 m² of photovoltaic panel, a weight of less than 300 kg and a battery with a life autonomy of 500 km.

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Team at work on the sides of Emilia4

But this team has another important choice to make: what circuit to compete on? By common sense,  the choice could be just one: to return to the World Solar Challenge… for all of them but one: Cristiano has a different view:  the arena had to be the American Solar Challenge.
In a group where each choice is discussed and explored, Cristiano’s decision is accepted. So “the sun’s volunteers” set back to work. To create the car, the team rely on the ability of an art expert coming from the University of Belgrade…but it’s tough to match a creative flair with technical necessities. However, somehow the two souls merge into dialogue. Overcome the first hurdle, a second one immediately follows: the stylistic requirements imposed by the American Solar Challenge. “If we consider the perfect car as one that you see on F1 circuits,” suggests Cristiano, “for an American excellence translates into a a 4×4.” The group then goes back to work, up to the day of the race day.The pilots team is finalized:  Morena, Ruggero, Denise and Marco (B.), along with them are Lorenzo and the two Marcos (P. & F.), dubbed as the “mechanics without borders”, the electricians Davide, Carlo, Marco and Claudio and finally the two responsible for towing, Andrea and Giacomo. They are all there, ready to challenge the other cars, to drive by day and work by night, to put the panel in position in the hours envisaged for recharging the solar panels (because for them the real challenge is also not having to ever recharge the battery pack from the mains throughout the whole race). But above all, the important thing is to qualify. That’s the hardest part: in the first days, teams that everyone would have granted such as the Russian, give up…But Emilia4 makes it through. It passes all the tests and succeeds in joining the other 21 qualifying cars (out of 28 teams registered) on the starting grid. There’s a wealth of stories in the on-board diary that the team constantly updates: from the little lamb staying close to Morena during the first night while she keeps working on the rims of one of the carbon wheels, to the Minnesota police, which not only accommodates our heroes for the night, but for a litte while escort them the next day, not to mention the silver dollar given by the major of Burns to bring them luck.

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Carbon rim work at night

But can scientists be superstitious or are they always cool-headed, rational calculators…? Well, I like to think that the Italian team is slightly different, that experts are able to combine formulas and numbers with a dash of superstition… and, from all I’ve been told, there is one certainty:: Emilia4 is onto the winner podium thanks to the expertise, the tenacity, and the passion of those who’ve gone along with the car and those who’ve stayed home, with the awareness of having given their maximum, for taking time away from their families and evenings with friends, because they have believed in a dream: a future made of sustainable mobility, that  perhaps will not be entirely of solar cars, but it will be of cars made of a mix of renewables – that’s for sure!
And for all the fans, the date with Emilia4 is fixed on 28 September, in occasion of the  Researchers’ Night in Bologna, where the Onda Solare team will  explain the secret of their success…

READ ALSO: Swimming solar the renewables of the future by Amanda Saint

about the author
Gabriella Galloro