Vehicles driven solely by solar power still suffer from a range of problems in terms of performance, capacity and comfort. Now automobile manufacturer Ford, working together with the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States, has come up with a system that enables vehicles intended for everyday use to run to a large extent on solar energy. The new concept, which increases the amount of solar energy a car can absorb, is scheduled to be presented at the Consumer Electronics Show CES on 7-10 January in Las Vegas. The C-Max Solar Energi Concept is an improved version of a hybrid vehicle. A flexible 1.5 square meter roof-mounted solar panel array boosts the concept car’s ‘clean’ power driving range, ideally dispensing entirely with the need to plug into the electricity grid.
Concentrating the sun’s rays with Fresnel lenses
Nevertheless the solar cells which capture the energy of the sun shining on the car’s roof are in themselves insufficient to power full electric driving so the technology which Ford and its partners have developed involves the use of a special parking canopy that enables the C-Max Solar Energi Concept vehicle to fully recharge its battery in six hours. The canopy’s roof is made of flat lenses, known asFresnel lenses, which act as a concentrator, similar to the effect of a magnifying glass, capturing and directing rays to the solar panels on the vehicle roof. This concentrating system enables ten times the amount of energy to be captured by the solar panels. The idea of concentrating the power of the sun to produce extra energy is nothing very new. What is novel, however, is Ford’s strategy for reducing costs. Firstly, the lenses are made of plastic and consequently cost far less than the dozen or so solar panels they are intended to replace. Secondly, instead of having to adjust the lenses as the sun moves round, as with conventional systems, it is the car that moves under the canopy, thus cutting the cost of the tracking system. The car’s onboard software monitors the amount of sunlight being captured by the solar panels and verifies that the car has moved to the right spot. Finally, the driver will still have the option of recharging the vehicle’s battery by plugging it into the grid.
Not quite an ‘anytime-anywhere’ solution
However, the system does not exactly correspond to the ideal of a vehicle that can be charged anywhere by solar power, offering drivers the same freedom they have with traditional combustion engine cars that you can fill up with petrol at a service station just about anywhere. It is hard to imagine Ford’s car parking canopies being set up just anywhere as the current design is five meters high and wider than a normal car park slot and recharging is still far too slow for normal road journeys. They could perhaps be installed in workplace/company car parks, but electrical plug-in stations would probably be cheaper and also available to vehicles not equipped with solar panels. Meanwhile several other auto industry players are looking at a variety of ways to use the sun’s power to recharge environmentally-friendly vehicles. Tesla Motors for example is planning to use solar panels to recharge batteries stored at re-charging stations, where electric vehicle owners could rapidly swap batteries and drive away. This system is quite expensive but by using inexpensively-produced electricity it might come to compete with petrol-driven vehicles if the cost of solar panels and batteries continues to fall. The Ford concept car and canopy are still in test phase under various conditions designed to simulate real situations and a date for series production and launch is not in sight at the present time.