Solar vehicles: what’s possible?

The search for alternative fuels to power passenger vehicles is an on-going global mission. It is a mission because personal transport is right at the heart of environmental challenges. The huge majority of vehicles today are still powered by good old petrol. More alternatives are making their way into the market place: amongst others, electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles, and even vehicles that run on biofuels such as sunflower oil. However, the most spectacular way to make a vehicle roll must be by the pure power of the sun. Unfortunately, we must start with a slight disappointment: admittedly, the days of the fully-solar-powered vehicle are a few, if not quite a few, years off. The main problem revolving around the purely light-powered vehicle should be fairly obvious: light, how to capture it efficiently? In the following, blog.alphabet outlines how far this technology has come and what the current driving possibilities are.

Solar vehicles are far away from mass production

At the moment, solar vehicles become completely useless at night and even a fairly cloudy day puts an end to this ultimate way of green driving. But what does the current technology comprise? Solar vehicles depend on photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight into electricity. Sunbeams strike the photovoltaic cells and electrons are excited creating an electrical current that can be harvested to power an electric engine. So in the end, a solar vehicle actually is an electric vehicle. Although the first official solar vehicle was presented at a General Motors automobile show in 1955 [1], it has since been student-run university groups teaming up to engineer various kinds of solar vehicles.[2] This is merely to show that sun-derived energy can be used to power a four-wheeler rather than trying to engineer a commercially accepted vehicle like the one sitting in your garage. These vehicles are designed with the sole purpose to participate in races such as the American Solar Challenge or the World Solar Challenge.[3] This then clearly reflects the current application possibilities of solar vehicle engineering: prototypes are being designed. Another fact people tend to forget is that solar panel technology is still extremely expensive to produce. Solar panels are made from silicon, which for now remains a too expensive alternative for carmakers to integrate into the latest petrol-free driving solutions.

Solar panels: energy assistants

Nonetheless, the main technology, the photovoltaic cells in the solar panels, more and more manages to mingle itself into the more sophisticated and established means of petrol-free driving. It is normally way to expensive for solar panels to power an entire engine and that’s why they may be used to assist other energy-consuming processes in the car. For example, the Toyota Prius Hybrid 2009 packs solar panels on its roof to power the cabin’s ventilation system.[4] This is a brilliant idea because it makes full use out of the possibilities that the current solar panel technology allows for. The dream of driving by the sheer power of the planet far away from earth will, however, have to wait a bit longer for its realisation. But certainly not light years. Blog.alphabet.com will surely keep an eye on the development!

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