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With the increased interest in renewable and sustainable energy systems, solar-powered cars have come to the fore. Many automobile companies are working towards making solar cars, and the technology could well change the future of the automotive industry.

Solar cars are electric cars that use photovoltaic cells to convert energy from sunlight into electricity. These cars can store some solar energy in batteries to allow them to run smoothly at night or in the absence of direct sunlight. If used on a large scale, solar-powered cars not only help with environmental pollution but also noise pollution.

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Many prototypes of solar-powered cars are currently ın development. Both large and small automakers are involved in developing hybrid solar cars. According to some estimates, the solar vehicle market could reach $689 billion by 2027. Automobile companies are already working on ways to capitalize on the idea with interim technology, such as solar roof panels for charging batteries and internal systems.

However, solar cars have a number of serious design and technological limitations. Some of these are partly tied to aesthetics. Such a car needs to be able to accommodate several solar panels, and there is limited space for that. That’s why, most solar vehicles developed so far are meant to run in solar car races, and not meant for regular use.

Sunswift IV is the fastest solar car that exists currently. This car was built by the students of the University of New South Wales for Solar Racing. The car uses technology that is similar to and a combination of the ones used in bicycles and aerospace, and the automotive industries.

Source: CathyLiao/Wikimedia Commons

However, so far, none of the vehicles have been designed in a way that they can 100% rely on solar energy alone. In addition, they use designs that would not be practical in real life. For example, the roofs are often flat and massive, to accommodate more solar panels; to save on energy use, they’re built with ultralight materials that would not survive even a minor crash, and they can only seat one person and no luggage.

How do solar-powered cars work?

A solar panel allows photons, or particles of light, to excite electrons, generating a flow of electricity. Solar panels are made up of many, smaller units called photovoltaic cells that are linked together.

Each photovoltaic cell is essentially a sandwich of two slices of semi-conducting material, such as silicon. The silicon is mixed with other materials, usually, phosphorus and boron, to give each “slice” a positive or negative electrical charge. This creates an electric field at the junction between the two layers.

When a photon of sunlight knocks an electron free, the electric field will push that electron out of the silicon junction. Metal conductive plates on the sides of the cell collect the electrons and transfer them to wires. At that point, the electrons can flow like any other source of electricity.

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