Making Sun make you move
Solar-powered cars: Silicon, electricity, fibreglass and little touch of air-refreshing moss
July 26, 2016. 4 am in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The Sun is soon to raise.
– Abu Dhabi Tower, Solar Impulse 2 with you on the localizer.
– Solar Impulse 2, roger, cleared to land.
– Cleared to land, Solar Impulse 2.
This is how I imagine the exchange between Bertrand Piccard, the pilot, and the dispatchers at the Abu Dhabi International airport. At the first glance, nothing special. Such exchange is a common thing to hear on the radio-waves of each and every airport. But only at the first glance.
Piccard was the pilot of the world’s unique plane, the Solar Impulse 2. It flew the Earth over using the energy from the Sun. To do so, the surface of the plane's wings was covered with 17K solar cells. Its wingspan was wider than of a Boeing 747. In sixteen-and-a-half months it crossed both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans hitting 42K kilometres (26K miles) in total. Piccard and his co-pilot, André Borschberg, spent above 23 days in the air.
Though being very slow, the Solar Impulse 2 set the world’s record for the longest uninterrupted journey in aviation history. It covered 4K miles from Nagoya, Japan, to Kalaeloa, Hawaii, with no stops along the way! What a surreal machine!
But if you think this article will be about planes, you are wrong.
In November 2017, the Byron Bay Railroad Company from Australia presented the restored 600-class railcar – originally from 1949 – which could run on the solar energy. Its roof is covered with solar panels. Its depot is covered with solar arrays. It can transport up to 100 people at once producing no emissions. And while it has a comparatively limited range, the first solar-powered train comes as the statement: The future of propulsion can be sunny and mesmerising!
But this article will neither be about trains.
Already in 1994 a young German architect Rolf Disch erected the solar-powered building – Heliotrope – in his home town of Freiburg im Breisgau. He did this in a protest against an incentive to build a nuclear power plant in the neighbourhood. Heliotrope is the spinning and “sun-chasing” construction, one of the world's first energy-positive dwellings. In other words, it can generate up to five times more power than it needs to function.
But this article will also overlook terrestrial architecture.
It will be about the potential of solar energy for individual transportation. It will be about solar-powered cars. Can they happen and be successful?
To begin with, yes. They can happen. While none of you have probably seen a solar-powered car, this does not mean that such cars are non-existent. The brightest proofs… hm, the “brightest”… are the vehicles taking part in solar races. The latter are the long-distance competitions where the hobbyist communities, research-and-development teams and renown automakers make no harm to the environment. The “veteran” of such races, The (Bridgestone) World Solar Challenge, was launched already in 1987 in Australia. It takes place biannually and requires the solar-powered vehicles to cover 3.022 kilometres (1.878 miles) through the heart of the John Coleman's continent. Then there exists the American Solar Challenge and the route which - in 2016 - stretched from Brecksville, Ohio to Hot Springs, South Dakota. Competing cars had to cover 3.178 kilometres (1.975 miles) route. Then there are a couple of other races.
The solar cars – at least in their racing editions – can be fast. The Guinness World Records states that the fastest of such vehicles is the Sky Ace TIGA crafted by the chaps from the Ashiya University, Japan. This car – the three-wheeler – hit cruising speed of 91.332 km/h (56.75 mph) on 20 August 2014 at the Shimojishima Airport, Japan. It was piloted then by Kenjiro Shinozuka. This said, the maximum speed which the Sky Ace TIGA can reach is 165 km/h (102.5 mph), as demonstrated on 19 September 2006 during the race in Taiwan. But the Guinness recording guys were not on the spot then.
The issue, however, remains unclear whether the solar cars can win the market and go beyond the circle of enthusiasts. This issue remains highly controversial.
The individual mean of solar transportation has a bunch of disadvantages. Primarily, the ride sluggishness. The motors which propel the contemporary vehicles are “impressive” 2-3 horsepower units. Lawnmowers are more punchy. Secondly, limits for power generation. As the car is a “small” and “moving” object, it is difficult to “grasp” enough beams for the smooth ride. Not to speak that taking more than one passenger on board will sharply decrease the performance. Thirdly, small dimensions. The solar energy makes sense for feeding buildings and orbital stations as the latter can retain big panels and employ capacious batteries in their bowels. Putting big panels onto the car will increase the drag coefficient and slower the car down. As for the batteries, they will also add unnecessary (deadly?) weight. Fourthly, poor usability. If you decide to drive the solar vehicle without batteries, as many racers do, this will only be the dawn-to-dusk-long ride. Racing solar cars are good for solar races only. Fifthly, unaffordable parts. The super-efficient silicone photovoltaic panels suitable for the “small” and “movable” vehicles are super-expensive. In their turn, the solar car bodies are usually made from fibre glass and carbon. Just to have some numbers, racing cars cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build; the Solar Impulse programme cost $170 million. Sixthly, the heat. Solar cars are ovens on wheels as they are made to focus as much sun light on themselves as possible. Have a nice ride!
This said, the solar cars continue to be engineered because they are not completely stupid. First, they produce no emissions and make the environmentalists exhilarate. Solar power, they say, is the cleanest power ever existing in the history of the humankind. At least, in today's history. Secondly, when reaching the cruising speed, solar cars can travel for thousands of miles without the necessity to stop and refuel. As mentioned above, the cruising speed is close to what the internal combustion cars can achieve. Thirdly, solar cars reach 90 percent efficiency in converting the electric energy into the wheel spin. To compare, the internal combustion engines can gain maximum 15 percent of “useful” energy. Fourthly, being solar is nerdy and cool. Fifthly... I guess, this is it.
As you can see, there number of disadvantages prevail. But hey, mates, Ford Model T was also a poor performer. Unlike the GT40 today!
By the way, speaking of the earlier days of motorization. The first prototype of the solar car – the Sunmobile – was presented by William G. Cobb in 1955 at the General Motors Powerama. It was actually not a prototype, but a ~40 centimetres (15 inches) long model with 12 selenium photoelectric cells glued on top of a wooden body. 2KK people saw the Sunmobile and wowed. But the GM chaps killed it as infeasible. They calculated that even if cells work at 100 percent efficiency, only 12 horsepower will be output. No match for other cars from 1950s. For your information, the most advanced solar cells today hit only ~30 percent efficiency.
However, Cobb's concept did not go unnoticed. Ed Passerini constructed his own completely solar-powered car in 1977 and called it the Bluebird. He said to be inspired by Cobb. Five years later, in 1982, Larry Perkins pulled out the Quiet Achiever from his garage and crossed Australia from east to west. That “vehicle” looked as bathtub on wheels capped with a solar table top. By the way, because of the Quiet Achiever's achievement, The Bridgestone World Solar Challenge takes place on John Coleman's continent.
The first some kind of a family car with the solar propulsion was presented by the Venturi company at the 2006 Paris Auto Show. French engineers called it the Eclectic. It made use of solar and wind power to move three people around the city with the maximum speed of 48 km/h (30 mph). Honestly, the Eclectic resembles a 19th century carriage to me. Solar panels cover its gargantuan and flat roof. The wind turbine adds some post-apocalyptic flavour to the design, but that should pay off on windy days. Or should have paid off as the Ventury closed its Eclectic lines in 2015. As for October 2008, the vehicle's price was set for $30K. Not cheap.
The breakthrough in solar-powered cars came with the German start-up Sono Motors and their SION. This is a 109 horsepower five-seater which can travel up to 30 kilometres (18 miles) on solar energy only. This requires leaving the vehicle under the Sun for about eight hours. If you want to go further, no problem: The car is equipped with the lithium-ion battery and offers a 250 kilometres (160 miles) long ride. The battery can be 80 percent charged from the standard outlet in 40 minutes.
To me, the SION looks as the breakthrough because of a couple of things. Primarily, it is a really practical solar-powered city commuter. Made for masses. Secondly, if ordered now and collected in 2019, it will cost you only €16K plus €4K for the battery. It is, thus, more affordable than the Eclectic. Thirdly, its “spares” can be freely downloaded printed on a 3D printer. Very democratic! Fourthly, with no servicing centres, there are a lot of licensed tutorials how to fix the car yourself. It is, thus, the artefact of open knowledge and DIY. Fifthly, the car will not rust or get scratchy as its body is heavily covered with the polycarbonate. Made for driver's psychological comfort! Finally, the car uses a unique air filtering system: A special moss which blossoms in the dashboard and eats dust. The moss! What can be freakier and greener!?
As for the mid-July 2018, 6183 people have pre-ordered their SIONs. Will you join them?
I will probably not as – apart from the SION – the Lightyear One exists! The super-cruiser!
The Dutch start-up Lightyear declared the ambition to build a solar-powered four-wheel drive car with the 400-800 kilometres range and a rare (no?) need for the outlet charge. Wow! The vehicle is designed to look super-cool and become a super-performer (as for its class of cars). As Lex Hoefsloot, CEO of Lightyear, states: “It is a revolutionary step forward in electric mobility because we are able to combine a great look with extreme efficiency. This first model makes science fiction become reality: Cars powered using just the Sun.” WOW! The first ten cars will be on the market already in 2019! They will be safe to run and easy to maintain because of the very few technical components. WOW-WOW! The Dutch chaps have a fair chance to achieve what they intend to as they are the regular winners of the World Solar Challenge! WOW-WOW-WOW! The price of the vehicle starts from €119K... Oh... That hurt...
I think I need to re-consider my SION decision...
However, to finish this article on a high and pathetic note, it is stupendous to observe how the world moves forward. It will be even more stupendous to move it forward yourself.
Anyone to apply for the degree in solar engineering? Anyone?
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P.S. Matt Parsons can be reached here: www.behance.net/Matthew_Parsons_SA