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Solar-Powered Train Sets Speed Record

Friday, September 17, 2021

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Recently, inventors of what’s being dubbed the first-ever solar-powered locomotive put their transportation vehicle to the test on a railroad track in Sonoma, California.

The co-inventors, Eric Houston and Marco Fucci di Napoli, hope that one day, the STX-22 (short for solar train with 22 panels) could be the fastest vehicle ever powered by the sun.

“I think it’s important to play with technology and to experiment and I think this is a step in that direction,” Houston told KPIX 5.

The record-setting test was hosted on the old Schellville railroad station, which dates back to the late 1800s. Houston pointed out that the track was already in place when the Wright Brothers made their first machine-powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, and said there was more meaning in what they were aiming to achieve.

Thankfully, because the 40-foot long, 3,400-pound solar array on wheels is the first of its kind, any speed over zero would set a record for the transportation vehicle. Running on pure sunlight, the vehicle can convert the energy into 10 horsepower.

For the test, the team took STX-22 onto a section of the track and Marco piloted the train. While the structure was reported to have been shaking rather intensely, Marco was able to get the vehicle up to speeds of 30.7 mph—almost 5 mph faster than what the team was anticipating.

Ryan Martin is the GM of Northwest Pacific Railroad and lent the team use of the tracks. Upon watching the tests, Martin said the STX-22 wouldn’t be pulling railcars anytime soon—some of them weigh more than 140 tons—but he said it’s important to keep an open mind.

“The sky’s the limit,” said Martin, “You double the size of this thing, double the speed…you know, we’re going off into a different race for transportation.”

Next year, Houston and Marcon intend to double the vehicle’s size and break the record for any solar-powered vehicle, which currently stands at 56 mph.

Protecting Solar

Earlier this year, in February, researchers from the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science announced the development of a new coating strategy for semiconductors that provides corrosion protection, improves efficiency and could even lower the cost of solar fuel production.

The research group was led by Shu Hu, assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering.

According to Yale News, solar fuels are produced when semiconductors are illuminated so that specific materials can allow for the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen. The energy produced from the process is referred to as photocatalytic water splitting.

However, the university notes that the illumination process is prone to corrosion and can lead to the frequent replacement of materials after only a few hours of use. In the past, researchers have attempted to protect the semiconductors by interfering with the separation of charged particles within the semiconductor—a crucial part in the device’s function.

In applying a new method that both allows for separation and prevents corrosion, Hu’s group developed a protective titanium dioxide coating.

Zhao further noted that the 1.7% efficiency was a record high for solar-to-hydrogen conversion and believes that future optimization could lead to more increases.

Currently, Rito Yanagi GRD ’24, a Yale graduate student and author of the paper, reported that solar-hydrogen production is dominated by materials such as oxides and nitrides, as opposed to semi-conductive materials, and are not efficient enough to be practical.

Should solar fuels see generation at a large scale, the process would require using a material that is both efficient and stable, which lead Hu’s group to work on the improvement of the hydrogen half-reaction of the water-splitting reaction. However, future studies plan to address the oxygen half-reaction.

In the year prior, India’s Department of Science and Technology reportedly touted a development from its International Research Center for Powder Metallurgy and New Materials that it said can keep solar panels cleaner, easier.

ARCI has reportedly developed a nanoparticle-based coating for solar panels that can minimize dust deposition and enables easy cleaning with water; it aims to prevent a reduction in efficiency of the panels due to soiling.

The researchers noted that while solar panels are designed to withstand severe weather and corrosion, conversion efficiencies are reduced by dust, dirt, pollen and other particles that accumulate over time—production capabilities can drop by 30-40% in two months.

While water effectively washes off dust and contaminants, typical coatings that aid that action are more suitable for milder weather conditions—not necessarily the harsh environment in India, for example.

Therefore, scientists at ARCI developed a high-performance, transparent, easy-to-clean coating using functional nanoparticles, which stand up to conditions of high temperature, humidity and varied natures of high pollutant level. The researchers say that the coating technology is suitable for application in an existing PV power generation field by spray and wipe techniques.

The coating aims to reduce the amount of dust deposited on the solar panels and cleans itself by the action of water on the modules.

According to DST, the coating was validated in laboratory conditions per international standards and validated on ground-mounted and rooftop solar power plants located at various places in the country.


Tagged categories: Mass transit; NA; North America; Program/Project Management; Public Transit; Rail; Solar; Solar energy; Transportation

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