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Build a Solar-Powered Car

Abstract

Do you want to build a solar-powered car? How about enter it in a competition and race it against other people's designs? If so, this is the project for you! These instructions will show you how to get started building a solar-powered car that you can enter in a science or engineering fair. No experience needed. If you want, you can even compete in the Junior Solar Sprint, a regional competition for solar-powered cars. Get more information about your regional competition.

Are you a teacher? Try the classroom lesson plan version of this project. It contains special information just for educators.

Summary

Areas of Science
Difficulty
 
Time Required
Short (2-5 days)
Material Availability
Requires solar panel and motor. See Materials list for details.
Cost
Low ($20 - $50)
Safety
No issues
Credits
Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies
Build a Solar-Powered Car for the Junior Solar Sprint

Objective

Design and build a solar-powered car.

Introduction

Solar power is power we get from the sun. Unlike fossil fuels, which can cause significant pollution and emit greenhouse gases when burned, solar power is clean and renewable. However, solar power is not without its drawbacks—it is not available at night or on a cloudy day.

Solar panels convert sunlight into electrical energy, which can be used to power machines like motors. They must be connected to the motor by wires to form a circuit. A motor can be used to drive the wheels of a solar-powered car (Figure 1). In order to build a solar car, you need to be familiar with the basic parts that make up a typical car:

Model of a small solar powered car made from a kit purchased online

Photos of a solar-powered car made from parts ordered online. The chassis of the solar power car is made from a rectangular piece of cardboard cut to a slightly smaller length than the solar panel. Attached to the bottom of the cardboard chassis are two straws that will act as axles for four plastic wheels. A motor with two alligator clip leads is taped to the top of the chassis next to a rear wheel that has a gear which will interlock with a gear on the motor. Three paperclips are bent and taped to the top of the chassis to support the solar panel (two at the rear and one at the front).


Figure 1. A solar-powered car (top) and the car with the solar panel removed (bottom) so you can see the other components. This car was built using a kit that supplies the solar panel, motor, axles, gears, and wheels (see Materials section). The chassis is a piece of corrugated cardboard, and straws act as the bearings (note that the straws are under the cardboard, so they are difficult to see in this picture). Paper clips hold the solar panel in place on top of the chassis.

There are several different types of transmissions that you can use for a solar car, shown in Figure 2.

Drawn diagrams of a friction drive, belt drive, and gear drive that can be used to rotate a wheel

Diagrams of three different transmission types (friction drive, belt drive, and gear drive). In friction drive, energy is transferred from the motor to the axle using two disks that are in contact with eathother. In belt drive, energy is transferred by a belt wrapped around disks on the motor and axle. In geared drive, two gears are used to transfer energy between the motor and axle.


Figure 2. Different types of transmissions.

There are different engineering and physics concepts you will need to take into account when designing and building a solar car. Some decisions may involve trade-offs between different factors. There is no single "correct" way to build a car. Some of the factors you should consider are listed below. Additional resources listed in the Bibliography can help you learn more about these topics.

If you experiment one by one with a few of these variables, and keep track of your results, you can design a great solar-powered car. Optionally, you can enter your car in the Junior Solar Sprint contest if there is one in your area. For more information, check your regional branch.

Terms and Concepts

Questions

Bibliography

Materials and Equipment

Disclaimer: Science Buddies participates in affiliate programs with Home Science Tools, Amazon.com, Carolina Biological, and Jameco Electronics. Proceeds from the affiliate programs help support Science Buddies, a 501(c)(3) public charity, and keep our resources free for everyone. Our top priority is student learning. If you have any comments (positive or negative) related to purchases you've made for science projects from recommendations on our site, please let us know. Write to us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org.

Experimental Procedure

Teachers, try our classroom lesson plan version of this project instead. It has extra resources for schools. Students, this version of the project was made specifically for you.

Planning Your Solar Car

  1. Sketch what you want your solar car to look like. What materials will you use? How will all the parts fit together? You can use the free project packet to do your sketches and keep track of your project. If you are thinking of racing your car in a local Junior Solar Sprint competition, using the project packet will help make sure you have all the parts you need to enter the competition!
  2. If you are considering entering the Junior Solar Sprint competition, make sure to follow the car sketching and building rules in Table 1. More detailed, official rules can also be downloaded.
Category Rule
Car Materials Cost cannot exceed $50 (not including recycled materials). Keep all receipts.
Do not modify (cut, drill, disassemble, etc) solar panel or motor.
Car Design Solar panel cannot be used as chassis/body of car. Axles and wheels cannot be directly attached to solar panel.
Dimensions (with solar panel attached) cannot exceed 60 x 30 x 30cm.
Motor leads must be accessible order to connect 2xAA battery pack if there is not enough sunlight on competition day.
Car must be able to attach to a guide wire that is 1.5cm off the ground, without untying one end of the guide wire.
Process Every time you work on your solar car project, make an entry in your log.
Use the pages in this packet to help you design your car.

Building a Starter Car

Now it is time to build your car. The video and step-by-step directions in this section show you how to build a very basic solar car. It is pretty rickety though and will fall apart easily! It is meant as an example. Feel free to build it, it won't take long, and then use the information you learned from building and testing it to build an awesome version of the car you sketched. Remember to fill in the pages of your project packet as you work!

Build a Solar-Powered Car for the Junior Solar Sprint
  1. Depending on where you purchased your motor, you will need to solder wires to it and/or crimp alligator clips onto the wires (Figure 3).
    1. If necessary, solder two wires to the tabs on the back of the motor (get an adult to help you with soldering).
    2. Remove the plastic covers from the alligator clips, and slide them onto the wires.
    3. Use needle-nose pliers to tightly crimp the alligator clips onto the bare metal ends of the wires.
    4. Slide the plastic covers back over the alligator clips.
Alligator clips are attached to the ends of wires from a motor
Figure 3. How to attach alligator clips to the motor wires.
  1. Connect your wheels, axles, and bearings. Figure 4 shows axles (metal rods) inside the bearings (straws). Each axle has two wheels (plastic discs with rubber tires) that are press-fit onto the ends of the axle. One of the axles also has a plastic gear pressed on, which will form part of the transmission. You need to plan ahead to think about how this gear (the driven gear) will align with the gear on the motor shaft (the drive gear).
Two axles with wheels, bearings, and a gear on one of the axles
Figure 4. Axles with wheels, bearings, and a gear on one of the axles.
  1. Construct your chassis.
  2. Connect your axles/bearings to your chassis. Figure 5 shows the axles/bearings connected to the underside of the chassis (a piece of corrugated cardboard) with tape.
Two axles are taped to a rectangular piece of cardboard which will serve as the chassis for a solar powered car
Figure 5. Axles/bearings connected to chassis.
  1. Connect the motor to the chassis and align the transmission. This can be one of the most difficult steps. If your transmission uses gears like the one in Figure 6, you need the teeth of the gears to mesh firmly. If they are too loose or not touching at all, then the motor will just spin without making the axle turn. However, if they are too tight, there might be too much friction and they could jam. You will need to see how it works when you connect the solar panel.
A motor is aligned with the gears on the axle of a solar powered car and secured with tape
Figure 6. Motor connected to chassis.
  1. Attach supports for your solar panel to the chassis (Figure 7).
Three paper clips are bent and taped to a solar powered car chassis to help support a solar panel placed above it
Figure 7. Paper clips as solar panel supports.
  1. Attach the alligator clips to the two tabs on the back of the solar panel, and secure the solar panel to the chassis (Figure 8). Note: the solar panel is fragile. Make sure you handle it carefully.
Two alligator clips from a motor connect to the back of a solar panel
Figure 8. Solar panel attached to the car.
  1. Now it is time to test your car! Take your car outside in direct sunlight, but do not put it down yet. Hold it in your hands and aim the solar panel towards the sun. If the motor and axle both spin, congratulations! Move on to the next step. If not, try these troubleshooting steps:
    1. If your motor does not spin at all:
      1. Make sure you are outside, in direct sunlight, on a sunny day, with the solar panel facing towards the sun. Your solar panel might not generate enough power to spin the motor if you are in the shade or it is cloudy.
      2. If your motor still does not spin, double-check your circuit. Make sure the alligator clips are firmly connected to the solar panel's metal tabs. If you soldered or crimped your own wire connections, make sure none of them are loose or broken. Repair them if necessary.
      3. If your circuit is OK, make sure your axle or transmission are not jammed. Does the axle spin if you twist one of the wheels by hand?
    2. If your motor spins, but the axles does not, make sure the gears are touching each other. You might need to realign your motor or the axle to make sure the teeth of the gears mesh together firmly.
  2. Once your motor and axle both spin when you hold the car in the sun, it is time to put your car on the ground and watch it go! But be careful—a working car can move pretty fast. It is a good idea to test your car in a flat, open area free of obstacles that it could crash into. Aim your car towards a volunteer who can catch it, or something soft like a pillow. The solar panel is fragile, so try to avoid letting your car crash. Watch your car carefully when you put it down. How fast does it go? Does it go straight?

Making Your Car Better and Faster

Think about how you could make your car faster. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Try to reduce friction in the axles. Could you use other materials for the bearings?
  2. Make sure the axles are parallel to each other so they roll smoothly without getting stuck.
  3. Can you make your car lighter by removing material?
  4. Can you change the angle of the solar panel so it faces the sun directly? Can you make the angle adjustable so you can tilt the panel towards the sun when racing at different times of day or in different directions?
    Solar Panel Angle for the Junior Solar Sprint
  5. Make sure your transmission is not slipping. Do you hear a grinding/scratching/rattling noise? Even if your axle is spinning, the gears might occasionally be slipping against each other. Align your transmission so the gears are firmly pressed against each other.
  6. Try changing the gear ratio. What happens if you use different size gears? You will probably need to realign your motor and/or axle if you try this.
    Gear Ratio for the Junior Solar Sprint

Competing in the Junior Solar Sprint

You will need to make technical drawings of your final solar car design as part of your entry into the Junior Solar Sprint. Directions on how to do this are included in your free project packet. You can also download these examples of technical drawings for more help.

Now you are ready to race! Enter the regional branch of the Junior Solar Sprint nearest you and have fun testing your car against the competition.

icon scientific method

Ask an Expert

Do you have specific questions about your science project? Our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.

Variations

  • Do you live in a cloudy climate, or are you unable to do this project outdoors for some reason? Do not worry! You can still build and test a battery-powered car and apply many of the same engineering principles. Instead of a solar panel, purchase a 2xAA battery pack and connect it to your motor.
  • Instead of a solar-powered car, can you make a different solar-powered machine? What about a solar-powered fan or artwork with moving parts?
  • If your school does not allow engineering projects for their science fair, consider doing a science project with your car. Perform an experiment to determine how changing one variable, like the gear ratio or angle of the solar panel relative to the sun, affects the speed of the car.

Careers

If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:

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Cars are an important part of our daily lives. We depend on them to perform everyday tasks—getting to and from school and work, sports practice, grocery shopping, and various errands—and also to keep us safe while doing so. Our cars can keep us cool or warm while we drive them, and they even help us find our way. The automobile is made up of complicated braking, steering, and electrical systems, in addition to the engine and drive train. All of these systems require a tremendous… Read more
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MLA Style

Finio, Ben. "Build a Solar-Powered Car." Science Buddies, 6 May 2022, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Energy_p043/energy-power/how-to-build-solar-powered-car?from=Blog. Accessed 19 Aug. 2022.

APA Style

Finio, B. (2022, May 6). Build a Solar-Powered Car. Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Energy_p043/energy-power/how-to-build-solar-powered-car?from=Blog


Last edit date: 2022-05-06
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