Advanced solar-powered cars gear up for grueling World Solar Challenge

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The University of Michigan's Aurum solar car features an asymmetrical catamaran body

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If you're looking to bring together the world's brightest budding engineers to push solar technology to its very limits, then there may be no better backdrop than the dusty, sun-drenched expanses of central Australia. The biennial World Solar Challenge will kick off this Sunday, with competitors set to cover a monster 3,000 km (1,864 mi) journey from Darwin, Northern Territory to Adelaide, South Australia in cars powered purely by the sun. As hopefuls from all over the globe ready their rides for the ultimate in solar-powered endurance racing, here's a quick look at some of the interesting vehicle designs, who's new to the party and a few that have been around the block before.

This year's event marks the 13th World Solar Challenge and features 47 teams from 25 different countries, which is more than ever before. The vehicles taking part have traditionally resembled spaceships more than cars you might see on the street, but at the last World Solar Challenge in 2013 organizers introduced the Cruiser Challenge, a second class catering to solar cars that can carry passengers and are designed more with practicality in mind.

The Challenger Class is the mainstay of the competition and sees a fleet of sleek, aerodynamic cars covered in solar panels battle it out to be the first across the finish line. This year's event features 29 teams who have had to tailor their designs to result in vehicles no longer than 4.5 m (14.7 ft) and no wider than 1.8 m (5.9 ft), which is a downsizing from the previous event. The field includes a number of teams who have been regular place-getters, if not winners, of the World Solar Challenge, along with a few making their debut appearances.

Nuon Solar Team: Nuna

The Nuon Solar Team is the reigning champ and has been one of the first three across the finish line in every World Solar Challenge since 2001, claiming the first prize a total of five times. Hailing from Holland, this year the team rides in the Nuna8, the eighth rendition of its Nuna solar car and, perhaps in a warning to its competitors, claims to have learnt some design lessons from its successful run in 2013.

Tokai University: Tokai Challenger

Japan's Tokai University has taken the fight right up to the Nuon Solar Team in recent years, winning both the 2009 and 2011 events, then coming in second place in 2013. It says the new and improved Tokai Challenger is lighter, features improved power generation and also better aerodynamics.

University of Michigan: Aurum

The University of Michigan has been in the game since 1990, when it placed third in the second ever World Solar Challenge, and it takes solar car design seriously. Consecutive third place finishes in 2009 and 2011 were followed by a crash in 2013, which crippled the team's chances of success despite the team's best efforts to repair the vehicle. Aurum is its 2015 ride, featuring an asymmetrical catamaran body that is said to be more aerodynamic that any vehicle the team has ever produced.

Stanford University: Arctan

A product of Stanford University's Solar Car Project program, Arctan is claimed to feature some of the most advanced photovoltaic and encapsulation technologies. Will it be enough to yield Stanford's first ever triumph at the World Solar Challenge?

Eindhoven University of Technology: Stella Lux

The (comparatively) spacious Stella Lux is a second take on solar car design from the team at Eindhoven University of Technology. Running in the Cruiser Challenge, the vehicle seats up to four people, features a range of more than 1,100 km (684 mi) and has a top speed of 125 km/h (78 mph). It has a tunnel running through its center to maximize aerodynamics.

New entries

Three new teams are looking to make their mark on the World Solar Challenge this year. Thailand's Siam Technology College claims it has designed its STC-1 solar vehicle to the same standards as a typical racing car, while the GAMF Hungary team says its goal with its Megalux car was to build a vehicle where all the components are in harmony with one another. Meanwhile, South Africa's University of KwaZulu-Natal will debut a solar car called Hulamin, which features an asymmetrical design with a small frontal area to reduce drag

While these vehicles are the result of years of research, refinement and careful consideration, there's no way to completely prepare for the harsh Australian outback where daytime temperatures are expected to reach 100° F (37.8° Celsius) in the coming days. There's certain to be a few twists and turns down the road, so stay tuned to Gizmag to see which team comes out on top. The awards ceremony is due to start in Adelaide on Wednesday as the teams start rolling in, but in the meantime you can click through to our gallery to see these vehicles from all angles.

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