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Students Experiment with Alternative Forms of Transportation

BOONE — Cassie Robinson dreams of owning an electric-powered car. She would like a solar-powered toaster, radio and television, too.

Chances are the Appalachian State University senior will see those products become affordable and commonplace during her lifetime, according to her sustainable transportation instructor Jack Martin.

“Because of improvements in technology and dropping prices, solar-powered weed trimmers, radios, all-terrain vehicles and other products will be mainstreamed in the next decade,” said Martin who already owns a solar-powered lawn mower, boat and bicycle. “Solar energy has no pollution, makes no sound, we will never run out of it, its efficiency will only go up, its cost will only go down, and it’s safe.

“Why are we working on anything else?”

Martin has the 16 students in his class working on alternatives to gasoline combustion engines. The class focuses on electric engines that can be recharged with a solar panel or by plugging into an electrical outlet.

As part of the class Robinson test drove two hybrid electric cars and helped build two electric-powered bikes using batteries, Ford fan belt motors and a drive shaft.

“Bikes are practical for commuting, so it is a natural product for us to build,” she said. “But the technology is the same as for an electric car, so we are learning the same technology, just on a smaller scale.”

This is the first semester sustainable transportation has been taught at Appalachian. The class is taught as part of Appalachian’s appropriate technology program.

Martin first discovered alternative energy sources while working for the Peace Corps. He rode an ethanol-powered motorcycle and helped build windmills while volunteering in Nepal.

Students tear apart and rebuild Martin’s boat and bicycle to see how they work. Other students use building scraps and spare parts to build their own forms of alternative transportation.

“I found this axle and set of wheels in a neighbor’s yard,” said Alex Glenn, a junior from Davidson. “He gave it to me and now I’m building a solar-powered lawn tractor.”

Halfway through the semester Glenn has the frame built and rear wheels complete. He learned how to build his own solar-powered vehicle through helping Martin and the other students build a solar-powered go-cart.

Students showed off much of their work during Appalachian’s homecoming parade, in which students rode electric powered bikes and scooters, a biodiesel-powered tractor and the solar-powered go-cart.

“Electric scooters are going to be on a lot of college students’ wish lists,” Martin said. “They can ride it up to seven miles to class, fold it up when they get there and recharge it at home for a cost of two cents.

“They are getting faster, cheaper and more powerful motors, too.”

Electric bikes can be fully charged with a solar panel in about five hours. When the rider uses the pedals in addition to the battery, the bike can hit speeds up to 20 mph for about an hour and half.

“A typical solar vehicle needs three to six hours of charging, which sound ridiculous until you think how much time cars sit in parking lots,” Martin said. “These are clean running engines and they are quiet, too.”

Martin predicts more electric bikes on campus and solar recharging stations, too.

“Electric bikes are perfect for security officers because it gives them stealth and an extra boost of speed,” he said. “Students will lead the way because they are open to new technology and they have a strong drive to do something positive for the environment.”

Converting a typical bicycle to a solar bike can range between $300 and $600 according to the size of battery.

“There is an initial investment, but solar panels virtually last forever,” Martin said. “You don’t have any recurring costs.”

Martin’s solar-powered boat will charge enough in one week to provide an entire weekend of boating, he said.

“We can’t rely on fossil fuels forever,” said senior Will Hadaway. “In my lifetime I hope to see these alternative forms of transportation as the norm not the exception.”

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