Energy Perspectives

Solar Cars: A Bright Idea

Jonathan Tang is a student at the University of Waterloo, and a solar vehicle enthusiast who is working on moving them from the theoretical to the practical.  He's a member of the Midnight Sun Solar Rayce Car Team, which has designed and raced solar cars for the last 25 years.

The car industry is increasingly investing in and incorporating alternative technologies to fuel their products. The rising number of hybrid-electric and fully electric cars on the market is a great step towards reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. However, what if I told you that we could do even better? No gas, no awkward outlets, just off-the-grid energy that falls naturally on the Earth - enough in a single day to power the world's energy needs for 27 years. What am I talking about? The solar-electric vehicle, otherwise known as the solar car!

Feeling skeptical? Then check out our Midnight Sun solar race cars, some of which can reach upwards of 120 km/h - fast enough to get pulled over on the highway! For over 25 years, the University of Waterloo Midnight Sun Solar Rayce Car Team has been designing, building, and racing solar cars. We are currently working on our eleventh car, the MS XI. Unlike a typical solar-powered vehicle, it will have two seats, a conventional driving operation (like a steering wheel on the left), a trunk, four wheels, and a stylish appearance. We want to combine the innovative technology of solar energy with the practical design of a 'normal car' you would own, creating a vehicle that is environmentally conscious and that people want to drive. 

A rendering of MS XI, which will be the newest car built by the Midnight Sun team. 

How Does It Work?

MS XI is a solar-electric car, fusing solar energy and electric vehicles.  We will layer solar cells on top of our car to create solar modules which absorb solar energy and convert it into electricity (the modules on MS XI will generate 1 kW/h, about what a high-end microwave uses).  The electricity runs to the Maximum Power Point Tracking box (MPPT), which stabilizes the current for use, then to the battery, where it’s stored until needed by the electric motor.  The motor, like the ones in electric-powered cars, will move the wheels and drive the car as you accelerate.

Of course, we don’t just stuff this electrical system into any old car! We consider how the car itself should be designed and built, to make sure it highly energy efficient.  The aerobody, or the outside of our car, will be made of carbon fibre and Kevlar to reduce weight. The inner frame will also be made of carbon fibre, which is strong enough to support the vehicle’s structure and the weight of passengers.  Finally, the outer shape is modeled after the cross-section of an airplane wing, to account for aerodynamics and air flow.  It’s a lot of work, but in the end, we get a road-worthy car powered entirely through solar energy!

 

 MS X is an earlier solar car built by the Midnight Sun Solar Rayce Car team. MS XI will be their next project.

Measurable Impact

The transportation sector uses lots of energy, and is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.  In 2010, the global car population broke one billion.  Unsurprisingly, statistics show that 26% of the world’s energy is used to fuel transportation, half of which is private.  The majority of transportation is powered by oil based products (i.e. petroleum).  If we begin to use solar energy instead, the gains could be monumental.  To put it in perspective, there are about 20 million personal cars in Canada, together emitting about 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gases annually.  If Canadians replaced even 5% of that fleet with solar cars, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions would drop at least 5 million tonnes!  As the population of cars increases, this clean solution towards transportation will go a long way towards slowing climate change.       

What’s Ahead

Our team has finalized the design of MS XI, and are planning on a finished build by the end of 2014.  Once done, our team will host an unveiling at the University of Waterloo for its first official drive.  In May 2015, Midnight Sun will take MS XI on a tour of Ontario as part of our “Fundin’ the Sun” crowdfunding campaign.  We have some locations planned, and we will be giving rides along the way.  We will continue to compete in solar competitions, most notably the World Solar Challenge 2015 (WSC 2015) in October.  You can follow our website, Twitter, or Facebook for future events.  We have lots of exciting things planned, and we can’t wait to share them! Finally, if you see us driving around your neighbourhood, feel free to ask for a ride.  We promise an experience that’ll make you want your very own solar car!

 

 

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