With renewed interest in renewable and sustainable energy systems, solar-powered cars have come to the forefront. Many automobile companies are working towards making solar cars, and they are changing the automotive industry.
Solar cars are electric cars that use solar energy. They use photovoltaic cells to convert energy from sunlight into electricity. These cars can store some solar energy and can also run smoothly at night or in the absence of direct sunlight. Solar-powered cars not only help with environmental pollution but also noise pollution.
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Many prototypes of solar-powered cars are being tested at the moment. Many big players and startups are involved in developing hybrid solar cars. If statistics are to be believed, the market for solar-powered cars is likely to be USD 1 billion by 2020. Automobile companies are already capitalizing on the popularity and are building solar car kits. These kits can help cars go long distances using solar energy.
However, solar cars have design limitations because aesthetics need to be considered as well so that they can accommodate solar panels. Therefore, most solar vehicles have been developed to run in solar car races so far, and not for regular use.
Sunswift IV is the fastest solar car that exists currently. This car was built by the students of the University of New South Wales for Solar Racing. The car uses technology that is similar to and a combination of the one used in a bicycle, aerospace, and the automotive industry.
However, so far, none of the vehicles have been designed in a way that they can 100% rely on solar energy alone.
How does a solar-powered car work?
A solar-powered car uses energy from the sun with the help of solar panels to recharge their batteries. These cars depend on photovoltaic cells that help them in converting sunlight into electricity.
Technically speaking, the photons of sunlight strike the photovoltaic cells and excite the electrons. This allows an electron flow that creates an electric current in the process. This electrical current is then used as a “fuel” to run the vehicle.
There are some of the advantages of using solar cars:
- Saves money on fuel
- Is sustainable and environment-friendly
- No additional costs except battery replacement
- Does not cause noise pollution or air pollution
The first solar-powered car was made by General Motors and was showcased in a convention in Chicago in the year 1955. This solar car was made of a small Pooley electric motor and a 12 selenium photovoltaic cells.
The Pooley electric motor was responsible for turning a pulley that rotated the rear wheel shaft. It was the first-ever solar car, but it was too small to drive.
However, Sion can be considered as the first hybrid electric vehicle that charges itself using solar energy. It has 248 solar cells that are integrated into its body, and it uses solar energy to charge itself.
When used for short distances, it has complete self-sufficiency. What’s more, on average, it takes about 30 minutes to charge up to 80% at a charging station.
This car can be driven up to 155 miles (249 km) on a single charge depending on how you drive, but it is ideal for everyday use. Sion is using 100% renewable sources of energy for manufacturing it. This car is sold at an estimated price of $28,500 by Sono Motors, a German company. They are a startup aiming to revolutionize how cars work and reduce overall carbon footprints.
Companies like Toyota, Hyundai, and others are also trying to use solar panels to build a fully functioning solar car or a hybrid version of it. There are also other solar car projects, making automobile technology more sustainable in the future.
The Stanford Solar project has also built some solar cars and is developing some more and bring them to the market.
Earlier this year, a Netherland startup named Lightyear unveiled a prototype of its first solar-powered electric car called 'Lightyear One' that boasts a range of 450 miles (724 km) on a single charge.
Although the car will cost around $170,000, it would be very interesting if it lives up to the efficiency claims.
The company is planning to start production by 2021.
Why aren’t we driving around in solar-powered cars already?
There are a few reasons why even the most advanced automobile companies haven't been able to develop fully solar-powered cars.
The first and foremost reason is the solar panel itself. The current commercially operated solar panels that we use have only 15 to 20% efficiency. Hence, to power to a solar car, we would need to pack the space of the car’s body with solar cells. But doing so, it invokes two other problems – weight and cost.
Solar panels are not cheap, and they are not weightless either. Packing the car’s body with solar panels means that you are adding a lot of weight and cost to the car. And when you factor in the weight of the battery, the idea of the solar-powered cars seems less and less feasible for the real world.
On a clear day, the earth’s surface receives approximately 1 kW of solar energy per square meter. Given that a highly-efficient 4 square meter PV panels can generate roughly 8 kWh of energy per day, it will only drive your car for about 25 miles (40 km).
Poor weather conditions, improper positioning of the panels, and dirt would likely make your solar car struggle to reach this figure.
Additionally, solar-powered cars aren’t “100%” ecofriendly. If you look at the way batteries and solar cells are made, especially how they are mined from the earth, it becomes clear that each vehicle comes with its share of carbon footprint.
But that doesn’t mean that it is impossible. Research is being made to create low weight batteries and high-efficiency photovoltaic cells. Pure solar cars still seem to be an idea with a lot of limitations.