Editor's Letter Insights

Solar-Powered Cars for the Win!

Written by Jeff Child

I don’t mean to brag, but when I was in the 6th grade, I won first place in my elementary school’s science fair. My project was “A Solar House of the Future.” It wasn’t very sophisticated. I attached copper tubing to a piece of sheet metal, and painted the whole thing black—because black absorbs the most heat. I attached this “solar panel” to the roof of a dollhouse. I then attached one end of some rubber tubing hose to the end of the copper tubing, and the other end of the rubber hose to a dish soap squeeze bottle filled with water.

 By squeezing the bottle, I could “pump” water through the rubber hose and into the copper tubing on the “solar panel.” I then shined a heat lamp on the panel to heat up the water. And, after a time period, I’d pump the water out so I could measure its temperature. Add some cool charts and graphs drawn with colorful magic markers to impress the judges, and victory was mine! Really a crude and kinda lame project looking back now, but … hey … it was 1976 and solar energy as an “idea” was popular at that cultural moment. “Right place, right time” as they say.

 Fast forward to present day and, of course, solar power is very much all around us, with a future potential that we probably can’t even imagine. When I drive anywhere in my town, I’ll always pass multiple buildings with solar panels. I noticed that my daughter recently bought a solar powered iPhone charger. And, an umbrella we purchased for our new patio has a small solar panel atop it to power its night-time LED lights. Yes, I think solar power is cool. And, as a technology topic I’m very interested in it. Do I use solar energy to power my house or heat my water? No, I do not— hypocrite that I am.

 While working on my connected cars article for this issue, I ran across an application for solar that honestly never occurred to me: solar powered cars. In late July, market research firm Fact.MR released a report called “Solar Powered Car Market.” It values the global solar powered car market at $80 million and forecasts the market to grow at 12.3% CAGR over the forecast period of 2021 to 2031. This growth is due to rising investments in R&D activities related to e-mobility and urban transportation. Monocrystalline solar cells are expected to dominate the market at a CAGR of over 13%.

 The technology challenges for solar-power cars are tricky. According to the report, photovoltaic cells are limited in what wavelengths they can turn into electricity, and don’t perform well when they get hot. Even the best solar panels can only turn about 23% of incident sunlight into energy. In order to improve fuel efficiency and CO2 emissions, several car manufacturers are working on introducing commercially available vehicle retrofitting with solar roof charging systems. For example, the new Sonata hybrid equipped with a solar roof system was launched by Hyundai in 2019. 30% to 60% of the vehicle’s battery can be charged using solar power while you’re driving.

 The market report says that monocrystalline solar cells are the leading category of solar panels for solar powered cars. They are expected to account for nearly 85% of the market by 2031. The monocrystalline cell is composed of a single crystal, and the electrons that generate a flow of electricity have more room to move. That means that monocrystalline solar cells are more efficient than other types of solar cells, and their market is likely to see an upward trend over the coming years, according to the report.

 As far as the battery technology for solar power cars, the report says that lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are used significantly. That’s because of their high charging-discharging efficiency, high charge density and light weight when compared to lead-based and other types of batteries. Li-ion batteries offer better performance, low maintenance and are environmentally friendly. The Li-ion segment is estimated to dominate in solar powered cars and account for over 90% share through 2031.

 An interesting topic to be sure, and one I’m looking forward to following over the coming years. Hey! Maybe there’s a 12-year-old 6th grade kid out there right now dreaming up a solar-powered car for her science fair project!


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Former Editor-in-Chief at Circuit Cellar | Website

Jeff served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxGizmos.com and its sister publication, Circuit Cellar magazine6/2017—3/2022. In nearly three decades of covering the embedded electronics and computing industry, Jeff has also held senior editorial positions at EE Times, Computer Design, Electronic Design, Embedded Systems Development, and COTS Journal. His knowledge spans a broad range of electronics and computing topics, including CPUs, MCUs, memory, storage, graphics, power supplies, software development, and real-time OSes.

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Solar-Powered Cars for the Win!

by Jeff Child time to read: 3 min