Solar Powered Car Creator Tests Technology in Record-Breaking Arctic Journey

Photo: GMâ??s new solar carCourtesy Marcelo da Luz

It started as a young man's dream: watching spaceships on wheels, powered by nothing but rays of sunshine zipping across the Australian outback from his home in Brazil. For 19-year-old Marcelo da Luz, the solar car was a glimpse of a Jetsons-like future -- beautiful, simple and clean.

"I was watching the 1987 World Solar Challenge in Australia on the news. I thought, 'That's the future, a race of cars followed by light,'" said da Luz, now 41, whose last name means "of the light."

At that moment, da Luz -- self described as "not a car guy," but more of an environmentalist -- decided one day he would like to construct a solar powered car, for the challenge and to perhaps inspire a more eco-friendly future.

Despite his passion, da Luz never imagined he would one day break the world record, driving his silver, sun-powered saucer to the Arctic Circle.

Solar Car: Becoming a Reality

As da Luz moved, settled in Toronto, working as an Air Canada flight attendant for 12 years, the dream of building a solar car was always in the back of his mind -- until he gave in to his dream, and explored how to make it happen.

"The pain of not following the dream became unbearable. I had to do something about it," he said.

Without an engineering background, self-doubt began creeping back in when da Luz realized it was a true challenge to learn how to construct the shell of a solar car.

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"I thought, 'You don't have any money, you don't have any resources, forget it, you're a nobody.' I felt alone and powerless to do anything," da Luz said.

But doubt was trumped by the fear of not realizing his dream, so da Luz began slowly, relying on all he did know. The World Solar Challenge rules provided the proper schematics for the shape and build of the car. Over two years, da Luz planned, then hit the Internet, soliciting help from volunteers online to construct his vision.

"By word of mouth, little by little, the project started taking shape. I had people from 23 countries volunteering to help me build the car -- flight attendants, homemakers, nurses, students, and teachers. People from all walks of life," he said.

Donations, Generosity Fuel Solar Adventure

With little money of his own, da Luz contacted companies from all over the world to donate supplies; the tires came from Japan, batteries from Korea, and solar cells finally came by way of Switzerland. After 50,000 hours of work over three years in his tiny Toronto garage, the car, which he named XOF1, was built.

As if he needed another challenge, da Luz sought to put the solar car to the test, attempting to break the world record for miles driven by a solar car.

Courtesy of Marcelo da Luz.

"I didn't want to build a solar car for the sake of building it," da Luz said. "I wanted to do something special."

And for da Luz, that meant not hugging the sun-kissed coasts and deserts of North America, but by going north -- way north -- to prove how well the solar car technology works.

"The Arctic Circle for me was the greatest challenge on the planet for a solar car," he said. "If you think of a solar car, you think of a tropical place, flat roads. But in the Arctic Circle, the sun is low in the horizon. It's the worst light for a solar car because you want sun heating cells, and at an angle, you don't get as much energy."

Without sponsors for the trip and little money, da Luz and his team began their journey in Buffalo, N.Y., June 12, 2008. Braving breakdowns, police intent on stopping him and winter climates for 46 days, da Luz and the XOF1 reached the Arctic Circle and then continued south to break the world record mark of 9,364 miles driven by a solar car.

Courtesy of Marcelo da Luz.

Across the United States, da Luz's drive and uncanny ability to inspire people has propelled him forward. From mechanics donating labor, in White Horse, Yukon Territory, when da Luz's transmission broke, to strangers pulling over to support da Luz when police officers hassled him, he has enlivened a spirit in those he has met on his journey.

Da Luz says that it seems like something divine was aiding him. In New Orleans after his team was robbed of money and computer, he was flooded with generosity, in places to stay, free computers and food.

"I'm not religious, but I sometimes wonder if it's a touch of divine intervention," he said.

Da Luz has been on the road ever since. He has now traveled over 20,285 miles, closing in on his second trip to the Arctic Circle, which he began in Florida, traveling back up the East Coast and across into Canada, running into familiar faces along the way.

"I'm now on the same direction as I was last year, and I've been meeting people that say to me, 'I saw you last year!' They are just so taken that it happened. When I started last year, people were skeptical that I would ever make it to the Arctic. Before, it was, 'You can't,' now it's 'Oh, right, you're doing it again.' It's nice to see that shift," he said.

Solar Future?

It's hard not to argue that solar power is a viable future. Da Luz's vehicle can get 285 miles after a good charge of sun, reaches speeds close to 100 mph, and while other cars are burning fuel in traffic, his is charging the battery.

But da Luz says that solar cars are only part of the solution.

"We only get 1,000 watts of energy from sun per square meter in summer. In order to have enough energy from the sun to power regular vehicles, we need a gigantic panel, and that's not practical," he said. "But the way I see the direction going is solar can be used as a supplement. You can have an electric car with solar cells and get 50 percent power from solar."

In a time when all are wondering what will happen to the auto industry with companies like General Motors reeling, perhaps it's a dreamer like Marcelo da Luz, inspiring and touching people wherever his silver, sun-powered saucer arrives next that will bring forth the next revolution in car building.

Or perhaps his journey is part of a more personal plight of perseverance.

Courtesy of Marcelo da Luz

Even without a sponsor, da Luz hasn't given up, staying on the road for over a year. He says he's contacted 1,300 companies for help and received 1,225 negative responses. When faced with the realization that he has spent his life savings on a project many would dismiss as silly, da Luz finds solace in having achieved his dream, and the hope that he is inspiring others along the way.

"It's lonely, I'm on the road all the time, sometimes I don't know where I'm going to sleep, I don't know about the weather, or how much further I can go but I feel like I am making a difference. That's what keeps me going," he said. "I am privileged to be able to follow my dream. Not a lot of people are able to do that."

To learn more about da Luz's solar car, follow his journey or make a donation, visit his Web site.