Lightyear One is a solar-powered, self-charging car that offers greener transportation for modern users. Image Credit: mikolajn/Shutterstock.com
Electric cars are often branded as a greener alternative to vehicles powered by gasoline, however, if an electric car is powered by energy from a coal-fired power plant, it becomes much harder to make the case that electric vehicles are indeed the cleaner alternative.
For an electric vehicle to truly be a greener alternative to conventional vehicles, it should be powered by a renewable energy source. A Dutch company called Lightyear is looking to address this issue with its prototype Lightyear One vehicle, which has solar panels within its hood and roof.
Named one of the Top 100 inventions of 2019 by Time magazine, Lightyear One can be charged from an electrical outlet, while the solar panels can charge the car’s batteries the equivalent of 7.5 miles of additional range for every hour of charging. The car’s solar power capacity means leaving the car outside your workplace on a sunny day would provide you with enough solar power for a standard commute home.
Taking standard usage into consideration, Lightyear CEO Lex Hoefsloot said his company’s car should be able to completely subsist on solar power for two months during the summer.
Designing a Lightweight Solar-Powered Electric Car
Electrical car design has largely been focused on creating bigger battery technology, leading to some electric vehicles being among the heaviest passenger cars on the road, relative to their sizes. While large, heavy batteries can provide a longer range, they also make it more difficult for these vehicles to potentially use solar cells as an onboard source of energy. The team behind Lightyear One said they were particularly inspired by the challenges associated with heavy battery packs.
The company's engineers started their design by embracing light building materials such as aluminum and carbon fiber. These lightweight materials still retain enough strength for use in a vehicle that must meet demanding safety standards. The lightweight construction translates to a vehicle that uses less energy and a practical range.
Five square meters of integrated solar panels are located on the hood and roof of Lightyear One. These panels have a safety glass so strong that an adult can stand on them without causing damage.
Video Source: Lightyear/YouTube.com
What are the Benefits of the Lightyear One Solar Electric Car?
In addition to being made of lightweight materials, Lightyear One has a very low aerodynamic drag, which the company has said has the best aerodynamic coefficient of any commercially available car. This feature translates to a longer range, as it lowers the amount of energy needed to overcome aerodynamic drag.
The fuel efficiency of Lightyear One means better performance on energy coming from a charging outlet. When charging in this way, it takes just one hour to store 570 km of fuel. Lightyear One can also store up to 350 km of energy through overnight charging with a basic 230 V outlet.
Depending on where and how the car is driving, Lightyear One can drive as far as 725 km before needing a recharge, which is long enough to travel from Boston to Washington, DC.
Engineers made the decision to propel Lightyear One with four independent motors, with each one located close to a wheel. In addition to greater control and weight reduction, this design feature also reduces the amount of energy lost when transferring power from the motor to each wheel.
While there are many environmental and performance benefits to Lightyear One, the solar-powered car also offers several benefits for drivers.
One advantage is related to parking preference. In the summer, many people avoid parking in sunny spots because they don’t want the sun to heat the interior of their car. However, drivers of a Lightyear One have a strong incentive to park in a sunny spot. Drivers of electric cars also have to compete for spots near charging stations, but there’s considerably less incentive for a Lightyear One driver to need this.
Driving Solar Cars into the Future
Video Source: Lightyear/YouTube.com
While solar-powered cars on the road would be a major feat of eco-friendly engineering, progress toward that goal has been slow and fraught with financial and technical challenges. For instance, when solar panels were first installed on a Toyota Prius, it only boosted the gas mileage by around 4 miles per gallon, which doesn't provide much return on investment.
As evidenced by the launch of Lightyear One, solar-powered cars are slowly becoming more commercially viable. Every two years, many commercially viable solar-powered cars compete in the World Solar Challenge, a six-day 3000 km race held across south-eastern Australia. In 2019, a Dutch team called Solar Team Eindhoven won with a road-legal car that generated enough power during the race to charge other cars.
Another commercially viable solar car that competed in the race was from the UK-based Cambridge University Eco Racing team. The team’s four-seat vehicle, dubbed Helia, is extremely fuel-efficient thanks to its lightweight components, aerodynamic shape and low-resistance tires.
Regrettably, the Cambridge team was forced to pull the Helia out of the race on the second day because the rough terrain of the racetrack proved to be too much of a drain on the car’s battery. Despite not finishing the race, the team still won third place in the competition’s ‘practicality’ division for the multiple occupancy ‘cruiser’ class of race vehicles.
In addition to the ‘cruiser’ class, which is intended for practical, road-legal vehicles, the World Solar Challenge also has a ‘challenger’ class for less-practical vehicles that serve more of an academic purpose.
In 2019, the Belgian Solar Team Agoria took first place in the challenger class after completing the 3000 km race in less than 35 hours. The Belgian team took the lead after the previous lead car caught fire just 263 km short of the finish line.
Since the first race was held in 1987, the allowable surface area for solar collector panels has dropped significantly, from 8 m2 to 6 m2 in 2009, to just 4 m2 in 2017 – an indication of just how far solar technology has advanced in the past 30 years.
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