Antarctica is the driest, highest, windiest, and, of course, coldest continent. Since it’s nearly uninhabitable for humans, it’s also the cleanest. That makes it the perfect place to launch an odyssey aimed at persuading people to curb their plastic-pitching habits.
In late November, Dutch couple Liesbeth and Edwin ter Velde were preparing to set out on a 3,000-mile roadless trip across the world’s most treacherous landscape, from Union Glacier base camp to the South Pole and back. Their ride is a 52-foot-long, solar-powered snow rover partially 3D-printed from waste plastic. Neither traveler was an experienced engineer, but two years ago, starting with plastic from their trash bin and a commercial 3D printer, Edwin designed a lightweight, honeycomb-shaped block he dubbed the HexCore. He partnered with custom material makers DuFor and Innofil3D to jigsaw 4,000 of them into the hull of this Solar Voyager, which is 15 percent upcycled plastic.
The electric vehicle is powered by 10 solar panels, which eke out enough energy to propel it forward at up to 5 mph. The plan is for the Ter Veldes to take turns driving their plastic contraption 24 hours a day, sleeping in shifts. With no heating elements inside the rover—all the solar energy goes to forward locomotion—temperatures may plummet well below zero. That’s part of the experience. “There is joy in the discomfort,” Edwin says. If all goes well, the plastic pirates will complete their journey in early January.
Here are some of the key technologies that keep Solar Voyager going in frigid conditions.
Self-heating polycarbonate keeps the windows from freezing over.
Solar Vacuum Tubes
Six steel tubes sheathed in vacuum-sealed glass are used to melt snow and boil water. In full sunlight, the pipes can reach more than 600 degrees Fahrenheit.
These produce a maximum of 3,500 watts of energy.
The 4-foot-tall rubber tires are bolstered by polyethylene netting.
The vehicle’s underside is fortified with a superstrong fiber called Twaron, which is frequently used in armored vehicles and antiballistic vests.
This article appears in the January issue. Subscribe now.
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