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Magnifying glass for solar power

WHY IT’S USEFUL:

Existing solar panels don’t generate electricity quickly enough to make solar cars practical

WHO’S WORKING ON IT:

Ford and a team of Georgia Tech researchers

WHEN WILL IT HIT THE ROAD?

It’s too early to tell

For environmentally minded folks, the move from fossil fuels to electricity to power our cars is a welcome step. Except, you know, it still requires electricity.

The dream, of course, is vehicles that run on renewable energy, like sunlight. And that dream is a little closer to reality now, thanks to an invention that works like a giant magnifying glass to beam the sun’s power into a car.

Researchers at Georgia Tech have teamed up with Ford Motor Company to build a concept hybrid car that would move its driver closer to being off the grid. Instead of hooking the car up to a traditional charging station, you would park the C-Max Solar Energi Concept car under a special concentrator that magnifies the sun’s rays.

The result? A day’s worth of sunlight produces a range of up to 620 miles, Ford says.

The automaker says that using the vehicle for a year would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by four metric tons when compared to a typical car.

“Electric cars and plug-in hybrid electrics are a step forward, but if you charge on Chinese, pure-coal power grids, you’re still not quite getting the benefit,” said Bert Bras, a professor at Georgia Tech’s George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. “If we can get actually clean electricity into cars — then you’re really getting there.”

Cars that run some functions on solar power aren’t new. But current systems can’t beam power from the sun into cars fast enough for the technology to be really useful.

The C-Max Concept couples 5-foot-wide solar panels on the car’s roof with an acrylic canopy designed to capture and intensify the sun’s rays. Think of it as a combination carport-magnifying glass.

The canopy’s magnifier actually tracks the sun’s brightest rays throughout the day, moving with the sun’s position to soak up the most energy possible.

“It’s 174 petawatts of solar that hits our Earth every single day,” said Mike Tinskey, Ford’s global director for electric vehicles. “It’s just an amazing amount of power, and this is just one way to start harvesting some of that power and using it for transportation.”

Bras and his team plan to begin testing the C-Max Solar in and around Atlanta in the coming months. But it’s unclear when this kind of solar technology could be ready for the market.

Bras acknowledges there are puzzles to solve, like how to minimize the extra heat the system generates, and how to generate enough electricity on cloudy days.

Automakers like Ford and Toyota are relatively new to solar power, and it’s also unclear whether they or another manufacturer would pony up the big bucks it would take to make such a revolutionary approach mainstream.

“How far is it away?” Bras said. “If somebody started getting crazy about it, it could be a couple of years.”

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