Published July 31, 2008 08:14 AM

Around the World on Solar Power

Swiss schoolteacher doing his part to change the world pulled his "Solartaxi" up to the curb on July 22 at UCLA's Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, the latest stop in his 50,000-kilometer, around-the-world drive to draw international attention to the present-day potential of alternative energy sources.

Louis Palmer, who launched his journey last July from his hometown of Lucerne, Switzerland, talked with students, faculty, media and others who gathered to take a look at — and take a ride in — the unique vehicle. The low-slung two-seater has the look and feel of a sports car, but its top speed is only about 55 miles per hour. What's more, it tows a flatbed trailer-sized panel of solar cells that sucks up sun power.


These limitations aside, the car offers Palmer the ability to accurately boast: "I have not paid a single cent for gasoline after driving two-thirds around the world so far!" (Ocean crossings, however, are made by ship, and a mechanic, crew and supplies accompanying him are transported in a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle.)

Palmer's visit to campus was hosted by engineering Ph.D. candidate Tony Pereira and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Pereira, who has had a longtime interest in solutions to global warming, posed the rhetorical question, "If Louis can go 30,000 around the planet on solar energy, why can't we make it 10 miles to work?"

Palmer, who teaches math, French and German to young students in Switzerland, took his rudimentary ideas for a solar car to four Swiss universities: University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Lucerne; Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich; University of Applied Sciences, Aargau; and University of Applied Sciences, Berne. Faculty and students at all four institutions spent two years designing, building and testing the vehicle.

"I wasn't sure if it would fall apart at the Swiss border," Palmer recalled of the early days of the trip, but so far he has driven across Europe, the Middle East, India, Indonesia, New Zealand and Australia — all virtually problem-free, except for two fender-benders and such challenges as dodging elephants in the streets of India. Palmer began the North American leg of the journey earlier this month in Vancouver, British Columbia, traveling south to L.A.

If Palmer can successfully cross the U.S. and the Atlantic, then return to Switzerland over the next five months, he will set a world record as the first motor vehicle not powered by fossil fuels to drive around the world on ordinary roads — and make it home three days before Christmas, fulfilling a promise he made to his mother.

While the Solartaxi uses electricity from 100% renewable energy and releases no emissions into the atmosphere, Palmer notes it's able to draw only half of its power from its trailer of high-efficiency Q-Cells solar cells. For the other 50%, solar cells on top of Palmer's home in Switzerland collect power that's eventually fed into an international power grid. In exchange, Palmer can plug into power sockets along his route to take as much as he contributes to the grid.

"A solar car is a perfect way of transportation," said Palmer, noting that even today's hybrid cars cut gasoline use by 20%, while solar cars are 100% gasoline-free. Still, solar autos are far from a practical reality. Palmer's Solartaxi cost about about $250,000 to design and build — costs covered by sponsors.

UCLA Materials Science and Engineering Professor Yang Yang, an expert in solar energy, said he is confident that an affordable solar vehicle will one day be feasible. "But it has to have a more efficient solar cell. We have the technology in Southern California, but it's very expensive," he said, adding that he and his colleagues are at work developing more efficient, lower-cost solar cells.

Pereira, whose doctoral research in developing strong, lightweight new materials could have applications in solar car manufacturing, predicts that we will see mass production of a solar car one day soon.

"We have to," he said. "We've used about half of the world's oil and we know the disastrous consequences of continuing this."

For more information on Palmer's Solartaxi travels, visit

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