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What is a Wind Powered Car?

Robert Grimmick
Robert Grimmick

A wind-powered car is a type of vehicle that is powered by wind energy either directly or by using electricity generated from wind energy. Though the idea for wind-powered vehicles dates back centuries, technology has only fulfilled this dream in recent years. Since most wind-powered cars are prohibited on normal roads and highways, they're far less practical for transportation purposes. Wind power can, however, be used to power electric vehicles.

Inventors and entrepreneurs have long sought to power vehicles using the free and abundant energy of the wind. In the early 17th-century, a Flemish engineer named Simon Stevin built a wooden carriage that was propelled by large sails, and used it to entertain royalty along sandy European beaches. The gusty plains of the midwestern U.S. inspired attempts at wind-powered wagons, some of which have become local folklore. An H.M. Fletcher of Plainview, Texas, is reported to have built a windmill-powered wagon that successfully traveled 30 miles (48 km) in 1910.

Man with a drill
Man with a drill

Many of these early attempts at wind-powered locomotion are similar to today's land yacht, a type of wind-powered car using sails. Modern land yachts look like sailboats with wheels, and participate in racing competitions held all over the world. Advanced land yachts can travel about three times faster than the wind speed.

More recently, another type of wind-powered car is built for all-out speed and features a more streamlined shape came on the scene. In 2009, a British wind-powered vehicle called Greenbird set a world speed record of 126.2 mph (203 km/h). Greenbird borrows technology from the aerospace industry, with a large vertical sail similar to an airliner’s wings. Two years earlier, a group of German students built a wind-powered car using mountain bike parts, a lightweight carbon fiber body, and a large rotor to capture wind energy and propel the vehicle's wheels. These types of cars may travel directly against the direction of the wind, or at an angle to it.

Various Internet forums have been home to a long-running debate over whether a wind-powered car could be built to travel downwind faster than the speed of the wind itself. In July 2010, a vehicle named Blackbird successfully accomplished this feat, apparently putting an end to the debate. Using a type of feedback loop between the wind-driven wheels and a large prop that delivered thrust, Blackbird reached a speed 2.8 times faster than wind speed.

An electric car could also be considered in this category if the electricity is generated by wind power. Stationary wind turbines can be used to charge the car’s batteries without producing any pollution. At least one city in the U.S. has an electric vehicle charging station powered by wind. Some concept electric cars have been optimized for this type of operation, and a few even claim to offer devices that can harness wind power as the car is driven.

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