A Moment in the Sun

Dr Geraldine Mate, Principal Curator – History, Industry and Technology, Queensland Museum 

Where better for a solar powered bicycle than the Sunshine State?

In October 2020, the Brisbane International Film Festival will be premiering a new documentary – A Moment in the Sun. The documentary explores the inspiring and fascinating story of the development of a solar-powered tandem bicycle, designed and built at the University of Queensland in the 1980s. The tandem bicycle, Supernova Australia, is proudly held in the Queensland Museum collection.

Queensland Innovation

Designed in Queensland to demonstrate possibilities for energy-efficient transport, the solar tandem combines solar energy with the biochemical energy (stored in the muscles of the riders) to power a lightweight, low cost, low maintenance, non-polluting multi-passenger vehicle. The hybrid vehicle, renamed Supernova Australia afterdesign improvements in 1985, was built to demonstrate how two renewable energy sources (muscle power and solar power) could be combined in a seamless manner.

In the 1980s solar power was not new, but this bicycle allowed human power and solar power to work efficiently in harmony without the need for batteries, through the invention of the patented “Maximiser Power Point Tracker” (seen here mounted at the rear).

First known as the Solar Tandem, the bicycle was conceived in 1984 by Dr Ugur Ortabasi, founding director of the University of Queensland’s Solar Energy Research Centre. A team of UQ students and staff designed, assembled and equipped the 3.5 metre long vehicle, including a 600 watt photovoltaic panel and the Power Point Tracker. Only the frame of the tandem was manufactured outside Queensland – consisting of lightweight, strong aircraft tubing, the frame was built by Malcolm Martin of Christy Cycles in Melbourne, Victoria.

The vehicle was capable of comfortably reaching 40km per hour and during a test run on a sunny Queensland day in Brisbane, the Solar Tandem reached over 80 km per hour. The total weight of the bicycle is less than 100kg while it can carry riders to a total weight of over 300kg.

This solar/human-powered tandem bicycle was donated to Queensland Museum by the Supernova Consortium: Stuart Wilson, Jim Allison, Ted de Boer, Ray Barton, Geoff Dwyer, Mark Morrisson, Ugur Ortabasi and Oktay Ortabasi. Shown here while on display at Queensland Museum in 2014, in the exhibition Freewheeling, the four-rider bicycle features a large rectangular fibreglass parasol covered on the upper surface with solar cells.  

View the Queensland Museum collection online here.

A Racing Bike

To test the application of this hybrid tandem, the solar tandem team, which also included local cyclists, took part in two major racing events in the 1980s. The first one was The Mall to Mall Race from Cairns to Brisbane, which was organised by The Courier Mail in 1984. The 1850 km race had around 40 entries in the ‘Novel Vehicle’ class, and required competitors to cross the finish line by a designated time and date. The Solar Tandem made it to the finish line on time and was named the winner of ‘Most Enterprising’ category.

The second race was the 1986 Tour De Sol that started in Germany and ended in Switzerland. This 383 km race, which included 1851m of climbs and 1683m of descents, was shorter than the Queensland race, but much faster. Despite crashing at high speed on a steep downhill slope in the Alps, the bicycle was repaired and the team recovered to complete the race. At the end of the final stage, the Solar Tandem Team was presented with the medal for first place in its category of Solar/Human Powered Hybrid Vehicles.

Team members riding the Supernova Australia on a leg of the Mall to Mall Race in 1984.  Photo courtesy of Oktay Ortabasi and Jim Allison.

Technological triumph

The Solar Tandem bicycle held in Queensland Museum’s collection is significant for its association with the early use of solar energy through the development of a demonstration hybrid multi-passenger vehicle, powered by two renewable energy sources: bio-mechanical and solar energy. In the 1980s the use of solar energy was in its infancy and the technology was severely limited; photovoltaic array efficiency was only about 8% compared with current solar cell efficiencies of more than 40% in research-cells.

Solar technology attracted worldwide attention in the 1980s, and prototypes such as the Solar Tandem were important, because they demonstrated that it was practical to use solar energy to generate significant power. This attention to renewable energy sources linked to increasing community concern about air pollution in the 1980s, although ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ were not yet in common terms.

Supernova Australia demonstrated to the world that solar energy was potentially viable.

Find out more about this inspiring and fascinating story of the development of a solar-powered tandem bicycle, designed and built at the University of Queensland in the 1980s. The documentary A Moment in the Sun has its premier at the 2020 Brisbane International Film Festival this October.  

Tickets are now available here.

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