Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Solar Electric Vehicles

I've worked with electricity all my life so it may not come as a "shock" that I'm interested in electric vehicles. There are several types of electric vehicles; plugged in, overhead fed, battery only, fuel cell, hybrid, and solar. There is always a need to provide the electric power for the vehicle.

The simplest would be a tether where the vehicle is plugged in to an energy source, not very useful for obvious reasons. On a similar vein, the overhead fed vehicle requires a connection but uses a stationary cable system, the overhead wires, to provide power. This works well for fixed route service such as buses and rail vehicles but not too well for the average automobile user.

What is needed is a reliable long lasting movable electric energy source. Batteries can provide that source, in fact some of, if not the first automobiles used batteries. The problem there has been the length of use obtainable from the batteries. Battery technology has made great strides in recent years and now can provide adequate service for the average city driver. If they want to stray far though, the battery will be depleted and finding a place to plug in may be difficult.

A fuel cell can provide electric power but they are a bit costly and even if the cost is minimized it still requires a source of fuel. hydrogen. The primary development seems to be toward a gasoline driven fuel cell which may still help with cleaner air but not with oil consumption.

Hybrid electric vehicles are popping up from many manufacturers. they generally provide much improved city mileage with slightly lower highway mileage. Either mileage is usually higher than an equivalent gas only car. The manufacturers seem to have made a significant compromise by using minimum sized batteries than basically only provide the boost of power needed to start moving while the engine is restarted. With a little more battery storage, most trips could actually be by battery only and the engine would only be needed for extended trips away from a place to plug in. There are a number of such vehicles but most are home made using a standard hybrid as a start, a manufacturers experimental vehicle, or built from scratch. The auto manufacturers supposedly compromised for weight and space optimization for general consumer use. New battery technologies being developed and the rising cost of oil may change the designs and bring forth a real useful hybrid that uses battery power for most or all normal use. Some new energy storage devices can store four times the power in half the space. A hybrid electric vehicle that has high capacity batteries seems better than the same vehicle without a gas engine because it assures the return trip can be made.

This brings me to the real reason for this post. Last week I saw a solar powered car cruising down the main street near my house. It wasn't much but it was moving with the rest of the traffic. It basically was a large four wheeled bicycle with an array of solar panels on a flat roof. The rest was a skeleton of tubing. The array of solar panels was about 6'x10' and it didn't seem to have a lot of battery storage. It was fascinating to see it zip by and I would have liked to have chased it down and learned more about it. Obviously it might have a little trouble moving around when the sun goes down limited by whatever battery capacity it had. It seems that it is or would be possible to have a truly fossil fuel independent automobile. Of course, I wouldn't want to be in that vehicle I saw when it gets in a collision but I think that problem could be solved more easily than the power train development.

Perhaps now all those engineering students at San Jose State that develop packaging for eggs so they can be dropped from the second floor of the engineering building without breaking can now put themselves to work to develop similar safety for the occupants of the vehicle.

In any case, it's reassuring to see such a vehicle. Now if only, we can keep the oil companies from trying to bury it.

Now, this may seem a little odd for an RV user to be interested in reducing oil consumption. After all, RV's aren't noted for high mileage. Actually RV's generally only use fuel when they move. Once they are at their destination, they don't use much. The support vehicles for a hotel or brick home, on average, consume more fuel. However, development of a good hybrid automobile that uses mostly battery power from a source other than fossil fuel will help out RV'ers in at least two ways. It will reduce oil consumption thereby reducing or minimizing fuel costs. and it will lead to similar power plants for use in RV's. Hey, I'm not greedy, just pragmatic.

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