Ask A Scientist

How come we don't use solar panel cars?

Asked by: Audrey Corby
School: Maine Endwell Middle School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Kevin Wagstaff
Hobbies/Interests:  Playing outside
Career Interest: Vet technician

Answer from Parag Vasekar

Research Scientist

Research area: Solar energy, thin films, materials science                                        Ph. D School: Florida Solar Energy Center (University of Florida), Orlando  

It is amazing that the amount of solar energy which falls on earth’s surface in one hour is sufficient to fulfill the energy needs of the entire planet for one year! Solar panels, like the ones seen installed on rooftops, are primarily developed from silicon, but this could change in the near future as technologies developed from other materials are being developed.  For example, the latest generation of solar technology uses thin film solar cells and organic solar cells. Research is on going to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of solar panels in order to make it competitive with conventional fossil fuel germinated energy sources. For example, at Binghamton University’s Center for Autonomous Solar Power (CASP) we are currently working to develop state of the art solar cells made from non-toxic and earth-abundant materials.  These will not only be safer to use, but also cost-competitive.

Hybrid vehicles generally combine gasoline and some other form of energy, most commonly electricity.  The solar powered car is still in the research stages and it will need a few years until it is cost-competitive with other sources of energy. Even today, we can see some solar powered racing vehicles in which the entire body of the vehicle is covered with solar panels, making them very costly. While prototype solar powered cars are being developed, it is out of common man’s reach when considering the current price of solar panels and efficiency levels. The price of solar panels depends on the materials used for their production. Hence some solar panels are more costly than others.  It is possible to develop a solar-powered car with panels using highly efficient materials (materials in the solar panels which are used in space satellites for example).  These panels would need to cover the entire surface area of the car, but again this would be a very costly affair. On the other hand, if less efficient and cheaper solar panels are used; a very large surface area is required which will probably not be available even if we cover the entire body of the car.

However, with current progress in the research domain of the state of the art solar energy materials and solar energy systems, solar powered cars will be more practically relevant and less expensive. Improvements are being made in solar energy systems every year, so it won’t be long before these cars are designed for common people to drive on the road. 

Last Updated: 9/18/13