The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Universityteam for the third annual South African Solar Challenge with their solar racer, Photon.

It may look more like an unidentified flying object than a motor vehicle but, believe it or not, this is a racing car - powered by a free energy source that South Africa has almost too much of - sunlight.

It's the Photon, built by a team of students from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, with financial and technical assistance from VWSA, for the third South African Solar Challenge from 18-29 September.

It will compete against solar racers from a number of South African universities as well as international teams from countries such as Japan and Netherlands, in a 5000km race across South Africa.

It took 18 months to design and build the car.

Project leader Clive Hands clive hands said: “Our team has local and international students from multiple faculties, all volunteers, and they've all been part of this project since it started in May last year.

“We've designed the car to be a light as possible, using composites for both the monocoque and the body, and we've used computer flow dynamic techniques to make the shape as aerodynamic as possible, reducing drag to a minimum.”

“All the sub-systems have been designed and built to reduce energy consumption as much as possible,” he added. “The car will have to travel the width and breadth of South Africa on not much more power than it takes to run a hair-dryer.”

International exchange student Arne Kloeblen heads the electrical side of the team.

“The power comes from six square metres of monocrystalline silicon,” he explained, “similar to those used for commercial solar-power installation, but custom-made to cover most of the top of the car.

“It's stored in a battery pack of lithium-ion cells, usually used for laptops or power tools, so there's enough power to maintain race pace even when the sun doesn't provide enough energy, enabling us to cope with uphills, tunnels - and even a bit of bad weather.”

“The actual drive is a highly efficient brushless DC motor that gets the most out of the available power.”

With just over two weeks to the start of the challenge, the team is hard at work testing, preparing and tweaking the car for its 5000km “final exam”.

And what's in it for Volkswagen?

Tom du Plessis, director for production at VWSA, said: “Renewable energy will play a significant role in the future of the motor industry and, by taking part in a project like this, these students will gain valuable knowledge that they can bring into the engineering field.”