We know that solar energy can power our homes and businesses. It can even be stored in batteries and used when the sun’s not even out. But what about cars? Can solar energy really be used to power or “fuel” a vehicle? It can.
The first solar car
The year was 1912, shortly after the invention of the solar cell when the Baker electric car was built. With 11,000 individual solar cells, this car could run on the energy made from the sun! Today, solar cells have advanced and so too have solar cars come a long way. Special races for solar cars have been held yearly since the late 1980s and science is still making progress.
Solar cars of today
The modern solar car is actually pretty straightforward. All you need is a solar panel that provides enough power to run a DC motor, and that car is ready to run! While a simple build is great for around town, if you want it to go the distance you’ll need a few more components.
Well, you’re going to need a solar panel
To run a car on solar, you’ll need a solar panel. Every solar panel is made of thousands of individual solar cells, all wired together to create the voltage and current necessary for the car to run.
Solar cars use something called a charge controller to take power from the solar panel and put a charge into its batteries. Once a battery is full, the charging stops, as overcharging could be harmful to the battery. Charge controllers can also be used to monitor the power output from the batteries, to avoid the opposite effect of damage from over-draining.
Connecting to the motor
To connect the solar panel to the motor of the car is the motor controller. Then, the driver has a throttle just like a gas-powered vehicle. Except instead of regulating the amount of gas that goes into the engine, the motor controller regulates the amount of electricity going to the motor.
Since the motor is what gives your car its ‘go’ power, the motor matters. For a very efficient electric motor, brushless DC motors are often used and operate similar to motors used in ceiling fans. It’s small, efficient, and does the job well.
Solar cars have come a long way, and it is an area worth continuing to explore since standard gas-powered cars are a big contributor to pollution.