Discover the planes, boats and cars that run on Sun power!
The Sun is a bounty of free energy, and harnessing its power has been a challenge occupying inventors for years. Now though, new machines are being developed that are powered by only energy from the Sun: the best are capable of some remarkable feats. It has long been the dream to utilize this democratic energy of the Sun. It costs nothing, is available to everyone across the planet, and makes consumers independent of fossil fuels. Unlike oil or gas, the Sun won’t run out in our lifetime. This is why there is a growing determination to crack the solar code.
Vehicles are ideal objects to be powered by the Sun. They do not stay static in one location so they can avoid shade and even angle themselves for best solar capturing. They can also utilize other energy-generation methods such as kinetic regeneration to supplement solar power.
There is an obvious downside to solar power too, though. What do you do when it gets dark? Or if it’s cloudy? The problem of managing motion when the Sun is in is the real challenge. Until now. Would you believe there is now a solar plane that can fly around the globe? Or solar cars that can travel from one end of Australia to the other?
How does a solar cell work?
The theory of solar electricity generation is literally’ exciting -it’s all thanks to the effect of light on certain elements and was investigated by several physicists, including Einstein!
Solar cells convert sunlight into electricity through the photovoltaic effect on a semiconductor. This is where electrons are emitted from a material that has absorbed energy from electromagnetic radiation such as sunshine. These are photoelectrons. Photovoltaic cells work on the same principal, but work on any light source, not just sunlight.
Individual solar cells are connected together in a module. These are then interconnected to other modules, forming an array. This is covered by a protective material to create a solar panel. Depending on the materials used, such panels can be highly flexible.
Electricity produced is used to power most objects that run on electric – from lights to cars. Consumer solar panels are often connected to batteries. This ensures the power that is not immediately used can be stored for later use, so it is not wasted. Efficiency of today’s solar panels is, however, only around 10-20 per cent. This will improve in the future.
Cars have used all sorts of energy sources, but the Sun hasn’t been one of them. Until now…
Solar-powered cars don’t offer the flexibility of battery-electric or hydrogen power, but they are a tantalizing prospect. If structures can be made light enough, and solar panels efficient enough, solar power could provide a useful complementary source to other means. This has been driving enthusiasts for decades, but now, international competitions have reached the mainstream.
Australia’s World Solar Challenge, for example, has been running since 1987 and demands competitors cover 1,877 miles between Darwin and Adelaide. Battery capacity is limited to 5kWh, and the PV area to 6m2. Batteries can weigh no more than 21kg and the cars are run on public highways so must be fast enough!
Facts about solar concepts
No.1 Fact – Solar ferry – The only ferry allowed to carry people across London Hyde Park’s Serpentine lake is the Solar Shuttle. Solar panels on the roof power a lead acid battery.
No.2 Fact – Auriga – Toyota cars are shipped across the globe using solar-assisted vessels. The Auriga has enough PV cells on its deck to supply 40kW of electricity.
No.3 Fact – Stanford Solar Car Project – A student-run organisation set up in 1989 to help members learn and develop solar car theories. On two-year cycles, students design and build solar cars.
No.4 Fact – Power of One – This Canadian one-seat electric car weighs 300kg, is 5m long and has a top speed of 75mph. It has set a distance record of 9,940 miles and is ‘open source’.
No.5 Fact – Prius roof – Toyota’s Prius Hybrid has a solar panel fitted on its roof. When the car is parked it powers the ventilation system, so the car remains cool inside on a hot day.