You don’t need to have an engineering background to picture them in your head: Solar powered vehicles. Fast, sleek, and shiny, with solar panels reflecting the light as they zoom at top speed – and without gasoline. Yet it’s remarkable to see just how far the technology has come, because it’s not just cars anymore – now, solar energy is being utilized to create efficient and eco-friendly airplanes, buses, and more. Although solar panels are now becoming a big player in the household energy market, there’s still a need for speed that solar energy can perfectly adapt to.
Let’s take a look at some of today’s most innovative solar powered vehicles, and maybe even get a glimpse at what’s coming in the future.
Belgium’s solar powered train tunnel
Back in 2011, Engadget covered the opening of Europe’s very first solar powered tunnel in Belgium, on the train route from Paris to Amsterdam. According to the article: “The installation’s 16,000 solar panels will be used to provide 50 percent of the energy needed to power nearby Antwerp Central Station and to provide extra juice for both high-speed and traditional trains.” Not only is this a breakthrough innovation for train travel, but it also means great things for environmental preservation, with the two miles of solar panels adding up to lowered CO2 emissions. All aboard!
The Solar Impulse Plane
Other than spaceships, airplanes get closer to the sun than any other transportation option, so it only makes sense to develop a plane that runs on the power of the sun. It takes 17,000 solar panels to propel the Solar Impulse 2 airplane, and this year, it’s set to fly around the world in only 20 days. (The plane will be able to fly at night thanks to a solar-charged lithium battery) When you consider the massive carbon footprint created by standard passenger aircrafts, this is a fantastically clean option for those looking to take to the skies. It may not be the number-one choice for uneasy flyers, but someday, solar powered airplanes could be a widespread reality.
When it comes to traveling the world on a solar powered vessel, apologies to Solar Impulse 2, but the Turanor Planetsolar sailboat has you beat. In 2012, the boat successfully circumnavigated the globe, becoming the first solar powered vehicle to do so. But after winning this accolade, there was no fading into the sunset for Turanor Planetsolar; instead, it’s currently being used for scientific research. MNN has the specifics: “PV panels cover a surface area of more than 500 square meters, and the boat can carry a crew of as many as 60. Though its average speed is around 5 knots, it is capable of reaching 14 knots.” That’s no small potatoes for a boat that looks more like a space-age hovercraft.
Solar powered bus
Leave it up to sunny Australia to invent the world’s first public bus powered by the sun. The Tindo bus in Adelaide rolled onto the scene in 2007, and it has since earned its popularity not just for its free wi-fi and comfy air conditioning – it’s also a free ride! Both cost-conscious and eco-conscious citizens can feel good about taking a ride on a public vehicle that doesn’t contribute harmful greenhouse gases, as it has saved over 70,000 kilograms of CO2 emissions every year since its induction. In fact, the bus itself doesn’t contain solar panels, but instead runs on electricity pumped in from solar panels at the main bus station. Now that’s innovation.
Of course, what would this list be without solar powered cars? The solar car challenge is still popular among engineering students, and solar car racing remains a popular sport – the cars can hit top speeds in a very short period of time, due to how lightweight they are. As the world’s automobiles move away from pollution-emitting fuel in favour of more green options (look no further than the emerging popularity of hybrid cars as proof), solar power could be the next big thing as a top energy source for cars. For now, though, the design still needs to be tweaked so the cars can remain both lightweight and able to carry passengers. But if you keep your eye on the World Solar Challenge, you’ll undoubtedly see competitors that may one day develop into the commuter car of the future.
Have you ever seen a solar powered vehicle in action? What did you think of it?