18 Nov 2012

Solar vehicles powering across Chile's desert

8:09 am on 18 November 2012

Fifteen solar panel vehicles, some that look like small spaceships, are racing across Chile's Atacama desert as part of a contest to build low-cost environmentally friendly cars.

Teams from countries including Argentina, Chile, India and Venezuela have crafted aerodynamic racers to speed across 1300km of the world's driest desert in the second edition of the Atacama Solar Challenge.

The race, which began on Thursday and is scheduled to end on Monday, pits teams from universities that build their cars on a tight budget in the slog across northern Chile in a celebration of an alternative to fossil fuels, AFP reports.

Some of the vehicles powered exclusively by the sun's rays, while others are solar- and pedal-powered hybrids.

The solar-powered vehicles are mostly flat rectangular contraptions lined with solar panels to absorb solar energy, which is stored in batteries, and with a cubicle to house the driver. The hybrids look like neighbourhood go-carts with solar panels glued on.

The race started at the Humberstone saltpetre, about 800km north of Santiago. The area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a ghost town that has been abandoned since saltpetre mining ended there in the mid-20th century.

The solar vehicles shared the same northern Chilean highway with trucks, buses and cars, but are a long way from replacing them, said Leonardo Saguas, captain of the Antakar team from Chile's Universidad de La Serena.

Mr Saguas, whose team built last year's winning car, said he can envision a day when Chile is mass-producing solar cars. "We have plenty of resources, we just need to develop them."