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Solar Cars Technology

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The Venturi Astrolab

Solar cars have been around for a while, but mostly as novelties or the products of futuristic science competitions. The knowledge gained from these experiments is now being put to broader use as populations try to wean themselves from fossil fuels. Consumers are looking for alternatives and, as photovoltaic cells become more efficient, solar cars are creeping into the marketplace.

How do Solar Cars Work?

Solar cars are powered by photovoltaic cells, a.k.a. solar cells, a.k.a. PV cells. These cells are built from semiconducting material such as silicon. Silicon reacts with sunlight by releasing electrons. The motion of the electrons creates an electrical current. This is the "photovoltaic effect."

"Solar power... only reaches its optimum potential within a decentralized structure, and it is this technological consideration that makes decentralization necessary... this means moving from the idea of third-party supply to the autonomous generation of power..." -- Hermann Scheer, The Solar Economy

Solar cars simply harnessing the electricity from the PV cells (which are linked together to form an "array") and using it to power the motor. It sounds too simple, but that's really it at this point; just have a look at the world's first solar car available for purchase anywhere (China).

Sounds great, especially if you live in a sunny climate. But as you might guess, PV cells are not very efficient. The semiconducting material does not absorb a high percentage of solar radiation (much is reflected or passed through) and 20% is a high number for solar cell efficiency. This is why most of the solar cars that you see in competitions or at auto shows look like their primary function is to maximize surface area for solar cell placement.

Still, as researchers develop more efficient solar cells, the sun-powered car is becoming more present reality than future dream. Not only is the technology changing, so is the social climate. "Big Oil," and "Utility Companies" are no longer regarded as human-engineered marvels that make our lives easy. This paves the way for solar cars, particularly autonomous autos.

As Hermann Scheer muses in The Solar Economy, "Solar power... only reaches its optimum potential within a decentralized structure, and it is this technological consideration that makes decentralization necessary... this means moving from the idea of third-party supply to the autonomous generation of power."

No car manufacturer is more in touch with this idea than France's Venturi. Venturi has developed a tribrid car that runs on solar, wind and can be plugged in to outlet if necessary. The first version caused quite a stir when it debuted at the 2006 Paris Auto show. Now it's almost ready for production, which supports Scheer's thesis of decentralization's importance to the implementation of solar technology.

For all of its space-age ideals, the technology behind the Venturi is hardly new. Solar panels on the roof? You've seen that before. A wind turbine? Older than Don Quijote but this one is detachable (you can bust it out on windy days and charge the car). A rechargeable battery? That's probably the most advanced component of the lot, yet it's the least innovative in its automotive application.

So if all of this is so easy, who else is developing solar cars of the future?

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