TEHRAN, Iran -- Clouds may still linger over relations between Washington and Tehran, but that's not stopping a group of Iranian students and their teachers from gearing up for a summer road trip through the American heartland.
Fueled by the sun and their hopes to shine in a first for the Islamic Republic, the 19-strong team is preparing to bring an Iranian solar car to compete in the United States for the first time, in the American Solar Challenge in July.
The flat, rectangular Havin-2, or Brilliant Sun, drove for tests alongside slightly larger gas-powered motor vehicles last week on a stretch of highway in Iran's mountainous north, ahead of the eight-day, 1,700-mile (2,700-kilometer) race that will take it from Austin, Texas to Minneapolis, Minnesota.
While the engine and photovoltaic panels are imported, the team designed and developed a Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) system for the car, which interconnects inverters, battery chargers and other devices to optimize its photovoltaic cells.
Farkhondeh Naziri, 20, in charge of electronics on the project and the only female member of the team from Qazvin Azad University, said they plan to optimize the car's absorption of solar energy based on the route it plans to take.
"We first do a simulation of the actual race course and study the weather conditions there. Then we try to calculate what the sun's angles would be during the eight-days," she said.
The 485-pound vehicle is 15 feet long, 6 feet wide and 4 feet tall, with a cockpit-like canopy for the driver. With photovoltaic cells covering some 65 square feet of its surface, the car's lithium-Ion batteries can drive it up to four hours between 56 to 93 mph.
The car's predecessor, the Havin-1, ranked 17th in the 2011 World Solar Challenge in Australia.
The team is sponsored by an Iranian bank and a car battery producer, which paid some $150,000 to build the car. Attendance in the event, including travel, is expected to cost the same amount.
Professor Beitollah Akbari, who manages the Havin-2 team, said he believes the project could help advance the cause of clean energy in a country where generous state subsidies have encouraged massive use of motor vehicles.
"Our young scholars and university students can significantly contribute to Iran's economic growth, particularly in the field of clean energies that can help us reduce dependency on oil. Especially now that our country is in dire need of cutting off reliance on energies derived from oil by all means."
Last month, Tehran cut a portion of its energy and fuel subsidies in order to bring prices closer to international levels, nearly doubling some prices at the pump and testing public support for such measures in a country battered by inflation and economic sanctions imposed over its contested nuclear program.
Subsidies have kept the cost of gasoline artificially low, and were blamed for making petrol cheaper than bottled mineral water. The cuts aim to release government money for production and infrastructural projects in order to improve efficiency and bolster the economy.
Transportation expert Masoud Mohajer said solar energy could potentially be a good investment for the government, given that the country has more than 300 sunny days a year to power the cells.
"As Iran cuts energy and fuel subsidies, solar energy, which is available almost all across the country, will be able a good alternative," he said.