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Solar Vehicles

Most people think of cars when they think of solar powered vehicles, which is natural given that most of the vehicles we experience are cars. Nevertheless, there are a number of other solar powered vehicles. In fact, solar cars are not available commercially, but solar-powered boats are. There are also solar-powered aircraft and even solar-power spacecraft.

Solar Spacecraft

Satellites almost always rely on solar energy. Solar energy for satellites is abundant and more available than what reaches the surface of the Earth because there is no atmosphere to filter and reflect. Batteries and fuel cells would need to be replaced at some point, while PV panels can operate for decades without maintenance, “refueling,” or degradation in performance.

Several Mars rovers and distant spacecraft, those that don’t simply orbit out planet, have been solar power.  The use of solar for propulsion is currently under investigation. Ion drives or ion thrusters use electric fields to accelerate ions and thus produce thrust. These are often an order of magnitude lighter than more traditional fuel sources, making space launches with ion thrusters more economical.

Solar Aircraft

A great deal of interest in solar aircraft comes from various militaries worldwide. A solar powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) could stay aloft for months or even long without the need to refuel. So long as technicians can monitor the UAV, it would be possible to keep continuous surveillance of targets of interest. Using aircraft is cheaper and, in many ways, less expensive than satellites.

Beyond military interest, there have been a number of “demonstration” solar aircraft built. While far from meeting the needs of commercial and transport aircraft, solar planes have carried one or two people for distances as great as 260 km (160 miles). Much like the flights of the Wright Brothers, these early aircraft are simple, flow by single individuals, and can only travel short distances. Fifty years will see the advent of large scale solar aircraft or at least solar hybrids that use traditional fuel for takeoff and landing and then solar when they are above the clouds.

Solar Boats

Unlike cars, planes, and spacecraft, solar-powered boats can be purchased commercially. The Toyota Motor Corporation currently owns a 60,000 ton car moving water craft that is set to be equipped with a 40 kW solar array to supply power. The largest currently functional solar-powered watercraft is the 30 meter long Turanor PlanetSolar, a catamaran yacht with 470 square meters of solar panels.

Solar Cars

Solar cars may be further from average use than solar aircraft and the reason has to do with size and availability of sun at the surface. Whereas hybrid aircraft can switch to primary or exclusive solar once they are above the clouds, solar cars must remain on the ground. To make such vehicles practical, a higher-energy storage system with a very large energy to weight ratio is needed. Such technology does not currently exist.

The most advanced solar cars are government, industry, or university research vehicles. They are generally not capable of on distance travel or high-speed travel (above 100 km/h). There are a number of technical challenges to overcome before the solar car is practical as outlined in the dedicated article.

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