Harnessing the power of the sun is hardly new. Calculators and wristwatches have been powered by solar for decades. Only recently, however, has solar graduated to bigger applications, such as airplanes and—even more ingenious—trash bins that track real-time trash levels to help optimize pickups. The new solar movement is also helping to power entrepreneurs and designers who want to create fun little add-ons to things like sunglasses or swimming goggles.
For some recent additions to the solar-powered world, read on.
Mobile Internet Café
A solar-powered Internet portal in the middle of rural Kenya, this mobile Internet café is provided to sub-Saharan Africa by Computer Aid International. Called a ZubaBox , the room is made from a shipping container, using solar panels that contribute 12 hours of electricity. Inside, 11 monitors operate off a single computer and a satellite connection to the Web.
Photographer: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images
Solar-powered trash compactors can reduce trips by garbage trucks to empty streetside waste bins. BigBelly Solar has sold them to Philadelphia, Boston, Salzburg, Austria, and other cities. The trash bins can be managed through the company website, which enables tracking of real-time level of trash, as well as historical levels, helping optimize pick-up times and load sizes.
The solar-powered catamaran MV Turanor left Monaco a year ago to circle the globe. The 102-foot boat has so far made it to Miami, the Panama Canal, Tahiti, Hong Kong, and Singapore, thanks to 5,780 square feet of photovoltaic cells on its deck.
Solar Impulse, a plane with 11,600 solar cells atop gangly wings, is the brainchild of Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard. Last year he flew it through the night, propelled by sunlight-fueled batteries. He aims to fly it around the world by 2014.
Haider Taleb, an inventor who contracted polio at the age of four, built a solar-powered wheelchair to venture across the United Arab Emirates. The 200-mile journey took place during 11 days in 2010.
Berlin Twin Towers
A photovoltaic array covers 4,600 square feet on the 230-foot-tall Berlin apartment house known as the Berlin Twin Towers. Annually, the panels produce about 25,000 kwh of solar electricity, roughly equivalent to what two single-family homes in the U.S. might use.
If you’re prepared to pay $3,000 for a lawn mower and you don’t enjoy the Zen-like meditative aspect of actually pushing one around, check out Husqvarna’s automatic mower. It’s battery-powered, with some help from solar panels on top, and can mow up to half an acre at a time.
Kaohsiung World Stadium
When Taiwan hosted its first multination, multisport event back in 2009, the World Games were held in a 40,000 seat stadium powered entirely by 8,000 solar panels, according to Channel NewsAsia. The U.S. has been a bit slow to catch up, with few stadiums utilizing solar power. Photographer: Sam Yeh/Getty Images
Just before the 2010 World Cup, Taiwan-based Greendix released the design for a soccer ball that uses the sun to power motion-and-audio sensors, possibly enabling blind people to play.
Built from the guts of a 1972 Euro-Camper, the Sol Cinema can fit up to eight adults for a sun-powered moviegoing experience. The 120-watt solar panels charge lithium ion batteries normally used in electric vehicles. Funded by media arts organization Undercurrents, the cinema has a cool, retro style.
The design for this prototype swimming goggle took the bronze ward at this year's annual SparkAwards for design and architecture, Designed by Joh Minhoo, the goggles use solar energy to power a tiny LCD panel that lets swimmers see their pace.
At a cost of about $560, this scooter was adapted to use solar energy by Ayub Khan Pathan and Imran Khan Pathan, according to Agence France Presse. The vehicle can go about 37 miles on a single charge from the sun.
Photographer: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images
The electricity for the power-assisted bicycles in Tokyo’s Setagaya ward comes from solar panels on the roof above the bikes. The rental system, installed near a train station, gives commuters a way to rent bikes with a little extra oomph.
Photographer: AFP/Getty Images
This traditional Thai taxi runs on a battery supplemented by a solar array atop the vehicle.
Photographer: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images
Africa’s first fully solar-powered phone, by Vodafone (VOD:LN) unit Safaricom, was released in August 2009. The current model, which sells for $38, was introduced in 2010.
Photographer: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images