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The search for cleaner vehicles

The sun-powered car built by the Biel engineers' school in the 1996 World Solar Challenge Keystone

The Biel School of Engineering boasts a long tradition of cutting-edge research in the field of sustainable development.

This content was published on November 15, 2001 - 13:44

"Design work on an electric motor began immediately after the oil crisis of the 1970s," explains René Jeanneret, a retired teacher and pioneer of solar-powered vehicles. "We were commissioned by a manufacturing company to carry out research on a vehicle that would not be dependent on fossil fuels."

In the 1980s, the school first ventured into the field of solar technology, intending to increase the range of the vehicles they were designing. The combination and development of existing technologies, and co-operation between the electrical and automobile engineering departments, resulted in a series of solar-powered prototypes.

"The school began the project with only modest resources, but a great deal of enthusiasm and an ideal constellation of human skills," recalls Jeanneret.

Initially, the work was done by a few enthusiasts during their leisure hours. "But as time went by, we were approached by sponsors who recognised the value of the work being done at Biel. These included Nicolas Hayek's Swatch company, which supported our research over many years."

Stages in a successful venture

In 1985, René Jeanneret completed the first solar-powered vehicle. Public attention was first drawn to the project when the vehicle took part in the Swiss "Tour de Sol" - a promotional parade of prototypes rather than a competition - which aroused interest in many parts of the country.

A great leap forward occurred in 1987, when the now legendary Spirit of Biel took part in the World Solar Challenge in Australia. The vehicle featured new propulsion technology, minimal fuel consumption and state-of-the-art materials for optimum performance.

By coming second over the 3,000-kilometre course from Darwin to Adelaide, it achieved its first success and confirmed the product's international competitiveness. "The only team to beat us," Jeanneret recalls with pride, "was Mercedes, whose resources were in any case far greater than ours."

From then on, The Spirit of Biel was a regular competitor in the Australian event. In 1990, the Swiss won outright; three years later, they repeated their 1987 feat, again taking second place.

During the ten years the research programme lasted, the Biel-made vehicles achieved several mentions in the Guinness Book of Records. In the early 1990s, they were the first electric-powered vehicles to exceed speeds of 140kph. Then, under the vigilant eye of the Swiss Automobile Club, they averaged 103kph over a distance of 500 kilometres, beating the previous record by a good 30kph.

In 1987, René Jeanneret predicted that solar-powered vehicles would soon be taking to the roads. He now admits that he was being over-optimistic. The initial euphoria was not matched by commercial developments.

"When the price of oil came down again, the motivation was no longer there. Also, internal-combustion engines have made a lot of progress in recent years."

Future prospects

But in Biel they have not accepted defeat. Research into a new, environmentally friendly means of transport continues. The vehicles are no longer mobile solar panels - the surface area of a normal automobile is too small to generate sufficient electrical energy. Instead, the designers are considering solutions that could have a real impact on people's daily lives.

Research is now focused on batteries which give the vehicle a fair range and, at the same time, are able to power vehicles suitable for use in city traffic.

A good example is the electric bicycle, versions of which are already in production. The "Intellibike" now being developed at Biel points the way forward. Solar panels are still an important factor in the equation, but now they are located on the roofs of people's homes, and the bicycle's batteries are recharged by plugging it into an electrical socket.

by Daniele Papacella

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