Swiss solar car racers inspired by threat to nation’s glacier

When your nation’s largest glacier is losing ice at an alarming rate, it serves as an ideal – if existential – inspiration for building a car powered entirely by renewable energy. 

And it’s the case for the Zurich-based αCentauri Solar Racing team, which has dubbed the vehicle it will debut in the upcoming Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, ‘Aletsch’, after the largest glacier in Switzerland.  

“It’s part of what motivates us as a team,” says Jent Imelman.  

Last year, the Swiss Academy of Sciences reported 6.2% of the nation’s glacial ice volume was lost in the 2022 summer. Even a loss of 2% volume had been considered extreme. Aletsch – the glacier – was kilometres longer and several hundreds of meters thicker only a century ago. 

Panoramic view of the aletsch glacier, the summits of the mountains aletschhorn, geisshorn and rotstock sticking out of the clouds
Panoramic view of the Aletsch Glacier in the foreground of the Aletschhorn, Geisshorn and Rotstock mountains. Credit: Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images

Imelman describes christening the αCentauri car as an “eyewink” to the troubling reality confronting Switzerland’s icy icon. 

The Aletsch name is paired with 85 – the team’s competition number – itself a nod to the first solar vehicle event held anywhere in the world: in 1985, the Tour de Sol ran over 300km from Lake Konstanz to Geneva.  

“If you just look at ‘85, when the first solar race was ever held, and how big the glacier was back then, [and] how much smaller it’s already right now, the urgency is huge,” Imelman says.

“So what we see in how we’re providing the solution, on one side, it’s the trickle down with all those single components or the car in its completeness. And on the other side, it’s the story we’re telling, a ‘green’ story on its own that might motivate and inspire people themselves to take the extra step in this climate change solution.” 

Aletsch in front of the swiss alps.
Aletsch testing in front of the Swiss Alps. Credit: Supplied

A global challenge 

In the coming days, Aletsch – like so many other vehicles from the international contingent of teams participating in the biennial event – will arrive in Australia, be pried from its shipping container, and set upon by the αCentauri crew. Within a week, they will perform final tweaks to the car before performing a ‘dry run’ to the continent’s top end.  

The Bridgestone World Solar Challenge is a 3,000km ‘race’ from Darwin to Adelaide. Considered the grand slam of solar car racing, it will see 42 teams from 22 countries operate their cars across Australia’s red centre in a test of human and technological endurance. 

While αCentauri is hoping to finish the race in its first appearance, Imelman says the team’s goal is as much about establishing a legacy. The team is run out of ETH Zurich, one of Switzerland’s top universities, and part of its remit is developing technical talent and future leaders inspired to advance the environmental challenges confronting alpine nations like Switzerland. 

“The biggest lasting effect is the educational value of such a project, we’re all primed to think about sustainability in industry, and we’ll [one day] work at Mercedes-Benz or Volkswagen and apply it there, or go to Airbus and say, ‘Hey, I’ve learned in the solar car project what you can do with green energy, let’s go use it here’,” Imelman says. 

“That mentality of what you can do with technology to solve problems in the world, and the experience we also bring, I think that’s going to be the biggest effect of this project.” 

The Bridgestone World Solar Challenge gets underway with vehicle scrutineering in Darwin from October 16, before cars take off for Adelaide the following Sunday.  

While αCentauri will bear the Swiss flag with pride, it will face stiff competition from about 30 other competitors in its category. 

Teams tend to hail from universities and draw their staff from undergraduate student pools. It’s effectively a practical course in vehicle construction, science and engineering innovation, and leadership development.  

Though teams refresh their volunteer staff every two years (such is life when your crew is student-based), alumni are often on hand to impart their wisdom and experience.  

αCentauri and other first-year teams don’t have the benefit of legacy experience and the team’s arrival in Adelaide before a reconnaissance drive to Darwin marks the beginning of a very steep learning curve: different roads; different road rules; and a route that is shared by solar vehicles with cars, campervans and semi-trailers.  

Jent imelmar designed the acentauri car.
Jent Imelmar designed the aCentauri car. Credit: Matthew Ward Agius, Cosmos Magazine

These, says Imelman are merely puzzles to solve, rather than barriers to success. So too the design of a solar car from scratch.  

Without the luxury of a wind tunnel to optimise the car’s efficiency, Aletsch’s curvaceous form was settled by using computational fluid dynamics – or CFD – where fluid flows are simulated using software to determine the most aerodynamic vehicle design.  

A first-year team needs to take every opportunity to match its experienced competitors. Imelman says αCentauri is under no illusions of the challenge ahead, but that’s the point.  

“It’s not the world solar championship, it’s a solar challenge, because just getting to the finish line is hard on its own,” Imelman says. 

“Dealing with different road rules will be the smallest challenge compared to building a completely new car.  

“That [finishing the event] is the biggest goal we have. Let’s get there.” 

Cosmos is the Media Partner of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge and will be covering the event in 2023. 

Subscribe to our quarterly print magazine

Please login to favourite this article.