Innoptus Solar Team: How Fast Can You Go in a Race Car Powered by the Sun?

In 2004, a group of Belgian engineering students built a solar car to compete in the World Solar Challenge, a 3021km endurance race through the Australian Outback. Twenty years later, the Innoptus Solar team is still going strong, with new students coming together to build new solar racing cars. They are currently double World Champions with their tenth solar car, the Infinite.For the team, success is all about collaboration and innovation, constantly refining the design of their car to make it faster and more efficient.


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Intro

Welcome to Third Angle, where you find us racing to the podium with solar power.

The World Solar Challenge was first held in 1987 when it was won by Sunraycer from General Motors. The current champions of that race are the Innoptus Solar team, founded 20 years ago by a team of engineering students from Leuven University. They set out to build the very first Belgian solar car, the Umicar One and took on the challenge of a 3,021 km endurance race through the Australian outback. Today, and 10 solar cars later, they are sponsored by PTC partner Innoptus, part of the 4ITEGO Group. They are at the top of their game, having won the last two World Challenges. Teamwork, collaboration, and some very bright minds are key to their success, helping them come up with some innovative design and engineering features like the rotating fin that harnesses the power of the wind to help push the car along.

Providing real learning

The head of mechanics from the Innoptus Solar Team, Jonas, is a student studying industrial engineering and has been a member of the solar team since March 2023. “It’s quite a long car, it’s five meters long, quite small as well, only having three wheels,” he said. “Our workshop is in the center of Leuven. Here we work on the car, we build things, we assemble it, and everything is also stored here. We also have a room to work on more exotic things. It’s just an amazing place.” Mechanical engineer Jasper said, “It brings so much joy in doing it, and so much experience. The learning curve in the solar team is amazing. I’ve learned so much more than I’ve learned over my studies in the past four years. Bringing everything that you’ve studied into practice is something that you don’t always get. We’ve got labs, but this is real stuff in the real world. And being able to do that here is so great.”

How it started

In 2004, there was a documentary on national television about the Solar Challenge in Australia. Some students from the campus group in Leuven thought, “Yes, we want to do that as well.” So they asked permission from the university to form a team. Every two years there was a new car. “In the beginning, it was quite a challenge to even finish a Solar Challenge because the car wasn’t reliable enough,” said Jonas. “But after a few years, we started building a more reliable car and started climbing in the ranks. In 2019, we came first for the first time. And now we try to be unbeaten.”

The races

The team competes in the World Solar Challenge in Australia, covering 3,021 kilometers. Starting at 8am and finishing at 5pm each day, they camp where the car has stopped. This year, they won with a time of four days and two hours. In South Africa, they take part in an eight-day-long race, with the winner being the team covering the biggest distance in that time.

The workshop

With a long corridor for storage, the team also has what they call “the dust cave” to do things that produce a lot of chemical dust, like sawing or cutting carbon fiber, which is stored at temperatures of minus 30 degrees. They use pre-made carbon fiber which is made into a mould, and the parts are cured in an oven. “When you want to start working you first need to take it out and let it rest a little bit so we can handle it because otherwise you can lose your fingers,” laughs Jonas.

Safety First

A safety requirement from the race organization means drivers need to be able to get out of the car in less than 15 seconds. Before the driver can get inside the car, however, there are quite a few things you need to do. You need to take everything out of your pockets and remove your watch, or any other things you have on you because they can damage the solar cells on the car. To get inside of the car, it’s quite a manoeuvre. First, you need to tilt the steering wheel up so you get a little bit more room. And then to get inside, you take the space that protects your head and shimmy yourself as low as possible to get the center of gravity as low as possible, put the steering wheel down, put on your seatbelt, and then you can drive. “It’s quite a challenge to get in,” says Jasper.

Being a driver - challenges

To become a driver, there are quite a few challenges. First, you need to fit inside the car. That’s challenge one. Challenge two is you need to weigh less than 65 kilos. A driver’s licence is necessary. Having good driving skills is important but you also have to be in good shape physically because driving a car for up to four hours in the heat is difficult. Pilots train in a simulator inside a sauna. “Normally if you go to the sauna, you sit in there for 15 minutes or so,” says Jonas. “We are driving inside the sonar for like a few hours to simulate race conditions. It’s quite an experience.”

Innovation award winners

The motor has an efficiency higher than 98%, which the team say is “much better” than Elon Musk has managed to produce. “We are still waiting for an invitation from him, but it’s not coming,” laughs Jasper. Their secret weapon, introduced in 2022 in South Africa, it’s the fin. The fin creates a sailing effect to get an extra push from the wind. The extension of the fin can be compared with the sail of a sailboat. But it’s also an extra amount of stability. In 2023, they introduced a rotating fin to optimize the angle of the fin to match the direction of the wind, which won the Innovation Award at the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge that year. The team strives to win this award every year, and have won it “three or four” times.

The car

At the end of the car, there is a licence plate so it can be driven on public roads – something that is necessary for the race. The car is also fitted with cameras, hidden in the licence plate, to reduce the drag from side mirrors. “A fun fact we always say that the amount of drag that our car produces is equal to the amount of drag that the side mirror of a normal car produces,” says Jonas. Without battery and driver, the car weighs 170kg. A gust of wind can take the car off the road, and it sometimes happens during the race. “We had a spin in 2019 where the car was picked up by a small tornado,” said Jasper. “The car spun two times and luckily landed back in its tyres, so we could still drive it.”

Benefits to the organization

Xavier Werbrouck is CEO of 4ITEGO Group. “The car is important, because we are in a complete energy transition, and we definitely need to make sure that innovation is driving our future,” he said. “On the other hand, what is important to me is that we support students, who will be the entrepreneurs of the future.” What is also important to the company is knowledge transfer from team to team because a lot of knowledge needs to be transferred every 12 months. “This is something that in a company typically is not every 12 months, so we need to be more efficient in that way for our solar team so we can bring a kind of stability because we are long-term partners,” says Werbrouck. “If we want to grow our business, we continuously need new people in the company. And there are a lot of people in our company with 10, 15, 20 years of experience. But these younger people are also bringing a new spirit into the company.”

Real-world benefits

“We try to test new things like solar panels that are not on the market yet,” says Jonas. “As a team, we see these technologies, after we test them, get implemented in the market. Our solar cells that we fused five years ago are now the solar cells on your roof. And as well with our motor that is so efficient, we think that these types of motors will be mass produced in the future within five years.”

Working together

“One of the lessons you can take from it is that working together is very important,” says Jasper. “When you design, listen to people who have done it before you. Because sometimes they can tell you from experience if it’s a good idea or if you need to look in another direction. Getting feedback from them is the most important thing from all our 20 years of building a solar car.” Jasper has one more piece of advice for other would-be racers. “Try to dream big, don’t be afraid to try to achieve something big. And Elon Musk, call us!”

The Innoptus Solar Team and Creo+

Looking towards next season and aiming for more success, the team is giving the car and innovation facelift with technical optimizations using PTC’s Creo+, the SaaS-based version of Creo, PTC’s 3D CAD solution. Brian Thompson heads up PTC’s CAD division. “The first great thing about Creo+ that this team will notice is the administrative burden is almost eliminated. All you need is valid credentials into PTC’s Atlas platform and entitlement for Creo+ assigned to you and you are good to go,” he explains. The first thing they will notice is their ability to bring new members on to the team is going to be really, really simplified. It’s going to be so easy for them to get new users up and running because everything is administered from PTC’s cloud platform. There are no more licence files to manage and no more worrying about installation. The technology is deployed to the students’ machines automatically directly from the cloud.

The benefits of Creo+

The real challenge with the Innoptus solar team is the fact that this is a highly optimized, highly engineered vehicle that is world-class in terms of its performance. That takes very, very tight collaboration amongst various experts on the team that have specialties like mechanical design, computational fluid dynamics, and so on. “This is where the second significant benefit of Creo+ comes into play,” says Thompson. “Creo+ allows the team to work on the same design at the same time and see one another’s updates dynamically as those updates are made, to make sure no one is working on the same data at the same time. We find that students who grew up with technology have a predisposition to want to work highly dynamically, and highly interactively. That’s exactly the way Creo+ was built. Creo+ is going to serve the Innoptus team well and make them even more effective than they obviously already are.”

Credits

Huge thanks to Jonas and Jasper for showing us around the Innoptus Solar Team garage in Leuven.

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This is an 18Sixty production for PTC. Executive producer is Jacqui Cook. Recording by Wederik De Backer. Sound design and editing by Clarissa Maycock. And music by Rowan Bishop.

Episode guests

Jonas Vlamijnck, Head of Engineering, Innoptus Solar Racing Team

More About Innoptus Solar Team

Jasper Gutschoven, Mechanical Engineer, Innoptus Solar Team

Brian Thompson, Divisional GM Manager, CAD Segment at PTC

More About Creo