The Smell of Electricity – the Hesse SolarCup

It’s a partly cloudy Friday afternoon at Königsplatz in Kassel. A team of SMA apprentices gather around a small solar car. “Die Sonne bewegt uns” (The Sun Moves Us) is printed on their blue T-shirts. Behind them, you can hear the squeal of tires as remote-controlled vehicles move around the track. I’m at the SolarCup, a competition where teams from various schools and companies compete against each other with solar vehicles they have built themselves. The first round has gone well for SMA, so far, they’re in second place. “The weather is perfect,” says Boran Alpasan, one of the apprentices. “The battery is fully charged.” The group makes a few more test runs.

A Burned-Out Engine, a Quick Replacement.

The engine is burned out

The engine is burned out

“Oh, no, there’s smoke coming from the car!” Suddenly, all the apprentices move in a flurry. “The battery might be overcharged,” Boran calls out to me as he sprints toward the solar car. Along with his teammates, he casts a worried look under the chassis. Quick as a flash, they remove the module panel. After a brief and highly technical discussion, of which I understand not one word, it’s clear where the problem lies. “The engine is burned out, and we need to make a quick switch,” says Boran. The team goes to work. Their training supervisor, Rolf Inauen, stays calm. “We always have plenty of spare parts on hand,” he says with a smile. Then he tells me why the Solar Cup is special – the apprentices practically run the show.

Solar Cup – a Project that Highlights Independence and Responsibility

“This project is all about learning,” according to Rolf. “In addition to their training, we want our apprentices to develop their technical skills and work together in multidisciplinary teams. For example, this group includes budding mechatronic and electronic technicians. I stay out of it, and that works pretty well.” The apprentices learn to create project timelines and then to take on responsibility. “And that’s exactly what we need at SMA, employees who can act independently.” The model vehicles are equipped with solar panels that supply electricity. The apprentices were allowed to select the drive components on their own. The rules set limits only on the size of the model and the battery. Since October, the apprentices have spent long hours in their workshop fine-tuning and assembling their futuristic car. This race is the highlight of their project.

“The longer it Runs, the Better.”

I can smell elictricity

I can smell elictricity

By now, the apprentices have replaced the engine. “Here, this is what electricity smells like,” says Rolf, holding the old engine under my nose. It smells burnt, and I can see several black spots. With its new engine, the vehicle is ready for the second round. I find a spot beside the figure-8-shaped course to watch the ten-minute race. The starting gun sounds, and the four solar cars begin to move. Our team’s is rather slow. “In this competition, endurance is what counts,” Tobias Hohmann reassures me. Keeping his eyes on the vehicle, he explains the rules. “The longer it runs the better. Speed doesn’t matter.” After a few rounds, the first cars drop out and ours starts to slow down too. Its battery is losing power. Shortly before the time is up, the racecar comes to a halt. Tobias explains that the jury will evaluate the technology of the vehicle, the team-designed poster describing it and the race itself. “I think we’ll do quite well overall as we made all the parts ourselves,” he concludes with a satisfied air.

And in fact, after the awards ceremony late that afternoon, it’s clear that our SMA team just barely missed standing on the podium. Nevertheless, the team celebrates the fact that their collaboration earned fifth place. Congratulations are definitely in order.

Facts about the Hesse Solar Cup

  • Educational competition hosted by the University of Kassel
  • Presented by SMA and the Städtische Werke AG Kassel
  • Students build and race solar-powered model vehicles
  • Categories: solar boats, solar robots, ultralight solar cars, remote-controlled solar cars
  • Purpose is to spark interest in renewable energy and technical occupations
  • Held every year since 2002
  • Information and rules:
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