Like solar-powered homes, solar cars harness energy from the sun by converting it into electricity. This electricity fuels the battery that runs the car's motor. Instead of using a battery, some solar cars direct the power straight to an electric motor. Great examples of the latest solar powered cars are the University of Michigan solar car, the MIT solar car, and the Berkeley solar car.
Solar cars use photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight into energy. Photovoltaic cells are the components in solar panels that convert the sun's energy to electricity. They're made up of semiconductors, usually silicon, that absorb the light. The sun’s energy frees electrons in the semiconductors, creating a flow of electrons. That flow generates electricity that powers the battery and the specialized motor in solar cars.
Solar cars have some key benefits. Their solar panels work silently so they don’t add to the noise pollution already on the road. Solar panels don’t create greenhouse gases, as gasoline engines do. Most importantly, solar energy is free, widely available, and grants the solar car driver complete independence from foreign oil.
Solar cars combine technology found in the aerospace, bicycle, alternative energy and automotive industries. The design of a solar powered car is limited by the necessity of getting lots of energy from the sun and storing that energy in batteries. Almost all solar cars ever built have been for the purpose of solar car races.
A French company called Venturi has just finished a newer version of its original Eclectic Concept car from the 2006 Paris Motor Show. This newer version is smaller, slightly more aerodynamic and includes doors on its accessory list.
Like its forerunner, there are solar panels attached to the roof that generate power each sunny day and an available 300 watt wind turbine that is good for 8 miles when it's breezy. The car’s top speed is 28 Mph. If you’re out of power after sundown on a calm night, you can always plug in the on-board charger. The charger is powered by batteries and can go a distance of 31 miles in five hours.
Production of the neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV) will begin in October of 2009. As many as 3,000 units will be produced each year at a new Venturi factory near Sablé-sur-Sarthe, France. The cars will be priced around $20,700.
Solar powered cars have come a long way since the creation of the first solar cell in 1883. The Toyota Prius is the closest you can get to a solar car for the masses. The newest Prius, due out in late 2009, will feature a hybrid electric-gasoline engine, automatic self-parking, and solar panels to power its air-conditioning system. The solar cells would make Toyota the first major automaker to use solar power for a vehicle. Automotive air-conditioning systems are usually powered by your car’s engine, which has to work harder to keep the car moving and its occupants cool. By using a combination of a solar panel and an electric motor, Toyota is able to use the power of the sun against itself, save gas, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
These particular solar panels can't be used to power the entire vehicle, but there is hope: a U.S. company called SEV has demonstrated a modified, solar-powered Prius that improves fuel economy by about 29 percent. According to SEV, this gives you a daily electric-only range of 20 miles.
Solar pioneer Hans Tholstrup initiated the World Solar Challenge after he drove a home-built solar car called the Quiet Achiever across Australia from west to east in 1982. Inaugurated in 1987, the World Solar Challenge showcases the development of advanced automotive technology and promotes alternatives to conventional automobiles. The 2009 race will be held October 25 - October 31.
The challenge is a simple: build a solar car that can travel from Darwin to Adelaide in the shortest possible time. There are three main restrictions:
The first challenge in 1987 was a watershed. Twenty-three cars from seven countries entered. Runaway winner, General Motors' Sunraycer, got all the attention. It finished the race in just 44 hours, averaging 66.9 kilometers per hour. Sunraycer's success had an enormous influence on the development of the General Motors electric vehicles. The challenge has since become a testing ground for every facet of vehicle design from aerodynamics to tires. Auto giants Ford, Honda, Toyota and Nissan participate.
The event is popular around the world. Japan and the United States have long held their own versions of the event with events also being held in Europe, Malaysia, Taiwan, South Africa and the Middle East.
The World Solar Challenge is the premier forum for solar vehicle technology. It is the focus of the creative efforts of some of the best companies and engineering schools in the world and attracts worldwide media attention, books, documentaries and even a feature film.
Sources: aboutmyplanet.com, venturi.com, cnet.com, solarelectricvehicles.com, wsc.org
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