'Made in UAE' solar car races to fame

Made in UAE solar car races to fame
Shihab Mohammed bin Solaiman with his solar and hybrid car models

Silvia Radan

Published: Thu 11 Aug 2016, 10:08 PM

Last updated: Fri 12 Aug 2016, 1:00 AM

Shihab Mohammed bin Solaiman is all ready to conquer the world of academia with a solar car. The 23-year-old Bangladeshi engineering student at Petroleum Institute (PI) in Abu Dhabi recently won - beating out hundreds of worldwide competitors in the bargain - the Total Campus Challenge 'Make Things Better'.
At the competition - run by the French oil company Total - he presented two special car designs, a solar and a hybrid one. This is not the first time these eco-friendly, sustainable car models are in the limelight. Shihab spoke to Khaleej Times about his passion - building cars - particularly the two he has devoted most of his time to.
Describe the two cars you designed for the competition.
The two cars in my presentation, a solar car and a hybrid car, are both projects I worked on. The hybrid car has a fuel economy higher than 150 miles per gallon.
The solar car can go up to speeds of 140km per hour, merely using solar power. As long as there is sunlight, its batteries keep recharging. So theoretically, if you drive it at 70 to 80 kilometres per hour it can go on forever, because it's being charged by the sun as you drive. On a cloudy day, it can run on battery power for up to four hours. In fact, we've done it, driving it from Abu Dhabi to Dubai and back just on battery power!
I was the mechanical lead for the project. We came into the limelight in 2015, in the Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge, placing second out of 15 international teams. That was our first time participating, so it was a big deal for us.
We were the only team to design a solar car in the UAE. In the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia also had one, but it's quite rare to find solar cars in general, so in that sense, PI is quite innovative in coming up with such projects for students to work on.
In another competition earlier this year for hybrid cars - the Global Hybrid Electric Challenge - held for the Gulf countries and Egypt, and our hybrid car came second among 18 other teams.
What is the next step you're taking with these cars?
Right now, we're still in an awareness phase with these cars. taking them to exhibitions, and spreading information about such innovative vehicles in the UAE, but in the future, we plan on participating in other contests, local and international, with upgraded versions of the same cars.
How did the project come about?
I'm a mechanical engineering major, and one of the things that inspired me to work on the project is my love for automotive engineering. In the UAE, I feel the automotive field's scope is quite less, just because there aren't as many competitions, but we were lucky that PI provided us with that opportunity.
I've been working on the solar car project since 2013, from design to manufacture. The hybrid is quite recent; it started in December last year.
I believe the solar car is the future, when oil and gas runs out, and we'll be looking at alternative means of running vehicles. I'm sure there are a lot of entrepreneurs in the UAE with a strong passion for cars. It's just a matter of time when someone comes up with a plan for building their own solar car manufacturing facility here.
What makes these cars special?
Our solar car was partially built and fully assembled in the UAE, so you can say it's a 'Made in UAE' product. The technology used in this car is not very common, not in production; it is custom-made for this purpose and is quite expensive to make.
We had to rely on manufacturers from Japan and US to buy the best technology there is for solar cars. The budget for this car was upwards of Dh1 million: more expensive than a Ferrari or a Bugatti, just because the technology is not commercial yet.
It is also made entirely of carbon fibre, the same material used in many newer airplanes. So at just 140kg, the car is very lightweight. The way it is designed, the air pressure pushes it down, making it go faster and keeping it stable in strong winds. Inside, only one small-built person can be accommodated so far. There's a very small opening for fresh air intake, and obviously no air-conditioning.
How did the competition go?
The competition theme was "Highlight Your Campus Innovation". I wrote what's innovative about the car, highlighting the fuel efficiency and speeds achieved on solar power. This was intriguing to the judges: how can such a meagre-looking car running only on solar power reach speeds of 140km per hour?
Out of all the entries in the world - I think there were 130 countries participating - Total shortlisted nine designs. Entrants, as long as they were university students, could send as many pictures they wanted of the same or different projects, but I only sent one photo. Mine was the only one shortlisted from the UAE.
After the shortlist was announced, we had a one-week voting period on social media, so we did a lot of campaigning, asking our friends to vote for us. There is also a big world solar car fan community, with an official Facebook page. So when I posted news of our entry in the competition, everyone in the solar car community from as far flung as the US and Netherlands to Japan voted for it. Being the only entry from UAE, other local universities supported me as well.
At the end of the week, with the most number of votes - 991 - I won the competition. I bagged the first place by a margin of about 80 votes.
The Total prize includes a fully-funded trip to South Korea for a conference, on November 4-10. The event revolves around engineering, and will be a networking opportunity, where I would definitely like to present our solar car.

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