Let There Be Light
The sun shines brightly over the rolling green hillsides on a beautiful summer day. Green leaf-covered trees wave gently in the breeze next to the road, soaking up the light. However, if you look closely, off in the distance, you might catch a glimpse of some odd-looking vehicles approaching at a steady pace. As the pack zooms by, you cannot help but notice the black panels covering each car. You curiously wonder what purpose they serve, and why these automobiles left no smell of exhaust behind. Suddenly, you realize the connection: It was right under your nose the whole time! Just as the trees use sunlight to grow and reproduce, these solar powered cars convert the sun’s rays into energy that propels them onward.
In 1839, a French scientist named Edmond Becquerel experimented with electronics and found that he could create a weak electric current using selenium, a light-sensitive metal that responded to the sun’s rays. Becquerel had discovered “photovoltaics” (“photo” meaning “light,” “voltaic” meaning “power”), or the PV effect, which turned out to be the key to harnessing solar energy and converting it into useful forms (Bellis 1). Although he had little explanation for this phenomenon, his successors picked up the investigative process where he left off. In 1870, Heinrich Hertz researched and experimented with selenium, and produced a primitive light-to-electricity machine (1). As time progressed, scientists developed newer and better solar energy converters using silicon, which had a much higher efficiency than selenium.
Solar cells were first officially invented by Charles Fritts in 1883 (1). Fritts used the selenium metal, which converted less than 1 percent of the solar energy input. In 1941, a man named Russell Ohl began experimenting with solar energy using silicon. Realizing that silicon’s efficiency was 4 to 5 times higher than that of selenium, a team of American scientists developed a solar cell in 1954 with 6 percent efficiency. This PV panel converted the sun’s light into battery power (electricity). Through further research and experimentation, the costly gallium arsenide proved even more efficient than crystalline silicon. Solar energy research then became quite popular as scientists from all around the world created, refined, and sought to perfect the solar powered machine.
The first completely solar powered vehicle (SPV) was constructed in 1977 by Ed Passerini, and named “Bluebird” (Solar 1). Passerini used solar power to provide electrical power to the car’s mechanical systems, and to recharge the vehicle’s battery as it drove. Although it remained a primitive ancestor of the solar powered cars to come, “Bluebird” kicked off the SPV craze with a bang.
Soon the giants of automobile production had bought into the new, relatively efficient, environment-friendly solar energy deal. General Motors...