The odd-looking boat in this picture was made entirely from recycled plastic bottles. That’s unusual enough, but how the boat was made is even more unusual. Would you believe that it was created by a printer? Of course, it wasn’t a printer like the one you might have on your desk to print school papers. It was a special 3-D printer. This type of printer forms an object, layer by layer, by spraying a fine powder of plastic or metal instead of toner. It sprays the powder in a pattern directed by a computer program. A laser beam melts the powder, which then hardens. You can learn more about 3-D printing by watching the video at this URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_NEG_FrkJI (0:59).
What Is Technology?
Printers like the one that made the plastic bicycle are a new type of technology. Technology is the application of science to solve problems. Because technology finds solutions to practical problems, new technologies may have major impacts on society, science, and industry. For example, some people predict that 3-D printing will revolutionize manufacturing.
Q: Making products with 3-D printers has several advantages over making them with machines in factories. What do you think some of the advantages might be?
A: Making products with 3-D printers would allow anyone anywhere to make just about anything, provided they have the printer, powder, and computer program. Suppose, for example, that you live in a remote location and need a new part for your car. The solution? Just download the design on your computer and print the part on your 3-D printer. Manufacturing would no longer require specially designed machines in factories that produce pollution. Another advantage of using 3-D printers to make products is that no materials are wasted. This would lower manufacturing costs as well as save natural resources.
How Technology Evolves
New technologies such as 3-D printers often evolve slowly as new materials, designs, or processes are invented. Solar-powered cars are a good example. For several decades, researchers have been working on developing practical solar-powered cars. Why? Cars powered by sunlight have at least two important advantages over gas-powered cars. The energy they use is free and available almost everywhere, and they produce no pollution. The timeline in Table below shows some of the milestones in the evolution of solar-powered cars.
Evolution of Solar-Powered Cars
1954: First modern solar cell
The first modern solar cell was invented in 1954 by a team of researchers at Bell Labs in the U.S. It could convert light energy to enough electricity to power devices.
1955: First solar car
In 1955, William G. Cobb of General Motors demonstrated his 15-inch-long “Sunmobile,” the world's first solar-powered automobile. Its tiny electric motor was powered by 12 solar cells on top of the car.
1983: First practical solar car
In 1983, the first drivable solar car was created by Hans Tholstrup, a Danish inventor who was influenced by the earlier Sunmobile. Called the “Quiet Achiever,” Tholstrup’s car was driven 4000 km across Australia. However, its average speed was only 23 km/h, despite having more than 700 solar cells on its top panel.
1987: First World Solar Challenge
Inspired by his success with the Quiet Achiever, in 1987 Tholstrup launched the first World Solar Challenge. This was the world’s first solar car race. The race is now held every other year. In that first race, the winner was General Motors’ “Sunraycer,” shown here. It had an average speed of 67 km/h. Its aerodynamic shape helped it achieve that speed.
2008: First Commercial solar car
In 2008, the first commercial solar car was introduced. Called the Venturi Astrolab, it has a top speed of 120 km/h. To go this fast while using very little energy, it is built of ultra-light materials. Its oversized body protects the driver in case of collision and provides a lot of surface area for solar cells.
Q: Why was the invention of the solar cell important to the evolution of solar car technology?
A: The solar car could not exist without the solar cell. This invention provided a way to convert light energy to electricity that could be used to run a device such as a car.
Q: The 1955 “Sunmobile” was just a model car. It was too small for people to drive. Why was it an important achievement in the evolution of solar car technology?
A: The car wasn’t practical, but it was a working solar car. It showed people that solar car technology is possible. It spurred others, including Hans Tholstrup, to work on solar cars that people could actually drive.
Q: How have the World Solar Challenge races influenced the development of solar cars?
A: The races have drawn a lot of attention to solar car development. The challenge of winning a race has also stimulated developers to keep improving the performance of solar cars so they can go faster and farther on solar power alone.
- Technology is the application of science to solve practical problems.
- Technology evolves as new materials, designs, and processes are invented.
Watch this video about saw-stop technology, and then answer the questions below.
- What practical problem is solved by saw-stop technology? Why is it important to solve this problem?
- What scientific knowledge does saw-stop technology use? How does it use it?
- How was saw-stop technology tested in the video? What was the outcome?
- What is technology?
- Explain how technology evolves, using examples from the development of solar-powered cars.