AT LAST WINTER’S ABU DHABI Solar Challenge, residents of the Persian Gulf emirate would pull alongside competitors on the highway, lean out and take photos of the solar-powered vehicles. Solar cars are as much a novelty there as in the United States, says John Ren, a member of the solar car team at Oregon State University, which took part in the 1,250-kilometer race.
Such events spur Ren and his peers to push the boundaries of solar vehicle technology. “Efficiency is the most important thing for us,” says the sophomore in industrial engineering from Portland. “We do everything we can to reduce drag and even power loss in the wiring.”
Named the Phoenix, the three-wheeled Oregon State solar car was built by students from the ground up, starting with its titanium frame. Silicon solar cells in a plastic-laminated array blanket the car’s surface, but the students have their eyes on emerging Oregon State photovoltaic technologies. Also under study is an anti-reflective solar-cell coating developed by team co-founder Kat Han, who received her Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 2014. The coating could help increase the car’s power output.