Electric solar car packs Tesla-beating range with the energy of a kettle

The Helia is going places.

A new electric car, packed with solar panels, promises to offer double the range of a Tesla Model 3 while using the same amount of energy needed to boil a kettle.

Students from the University of Cambridge have developed the Helia, a four-seater electric vehicle built with the help of Formula 1 experts and a series of suppliers. Xiaofan Zhang, program director for Cambridge University Eco Racing, tells Inverse that the car uses 50 watt-hours per mile. The Tesla Model 3, by comparison, uses around 250 watt-hours per mile. That means where the Model 3 is advertised with a WLTP-tested range of 348 miles per charge, the Helia can reach over 560 miles per charge — and that’s without using the solar cells.

On Friday, the team announced its return from the car’s first international race. The Bridgestone World Solar Challenge saw 13 teams travel the 1,864 miles between Darwin and Adelaide in Australia. Electrical issues stopped the Helia from moving past the race’s first stage, but judges gave it a third-place prize for practicality.

Helia at the Australia finish line.
The vehicle at the finish line.

“While the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge didn’t go exactly as we had hoped, it is still a tremendous achievement when you look back at the progress we have made over two years,” Zhang said in a statement. “The conditions this year were particularly challenging and this is the first time this model had competed. Nevertheless, Helia’s performance numbers showed her to be very competitive; it bodes extremely well for future events.”

Helia on a mission.
Helia on a mission.

Cambridge University Eco Racing has an impressive history. The 20-strong team of students was first founded in 2008. It built Affinity, a single-seat solar car that drove from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, the two furthest points on the island of Great Britain.

Just over a decade later, the team’s latest car packs an even more powerful punch. It can travel at 50 mph using just 2.5 kilowatts, around the power of a kettle. It has a top speed of 75 mph, making it suitable for the highway. It has an ultra-lightweight carbon fiber chassis that means the whole car weighs just 1,200 pounds. The Model 3, by comparison, weighs 4,072 pounds.

“It’s incredible to see how electric vehicle technology has developed so far in such a short space of time,” Zhang says. “These innovations have allowed us to build a four-seat car that is much faster, more efficient and practical.”

Helia parked outside.
Helia parked outside.

Although it’s chargeable from a conventional source, the Helia’s most unique feature is its five square meters of solar panels. These silicon solar cells boast 25 percent efficiency. It’s paired with a lithium-ion battery that offers higher energy density than most production cars. The team was able to get even more out of the components thanks to engineering expertise from its partners Formaplex, Bridgestone and Danecca.

While the panels failed to get the car across Australia at the most recent challenge, the team is aiming for future solar car competitions in Europe and beyond.

The project comes at an exciting time for the world of solar cars. Sono Motors is developing the Sion, a five-seater set to enter production next year that offers 158 miles of range, with solar panels adding an extra 21 miles of charge per day. Lightyear is developing the One, a more expensive vehicle that can run for 450 miles and add 7.5 miles per hour to the battery through its solar panels.

As electric cars start to reach the mainstream, their next advancement could see them harvest their own fuel directly from the sun.

Media via CUER, Cambridge University Eco Racing