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Christina Phan/Senior Staff Photographer

Garrett Fitzgerald and Rob van Haaren always wanted to take a cross-country road trip together to celebrate the completion of their Ph.D. programs. But they never expected the journey from New York to California to be completely powered by the sun. Fitzgerald and van Haaren, SEAS doctoral students, are finalizing plans for a 3,200-mile road trip by solar-panel-powered car. After reading about lightweight, flexible solar panels and electric-powered motorcycles built in the US, van Haaren wanted to find a way to synthesize these cutting-edge technologies. "I thought, why wouldn't it be possible to use the solar panels to charge the batteries in the electric motorcycle?" van Haaren said. "I sent Garrett a text message at four in the morning. I didn't sleep because I was doing initial drawings of the setup." Their plan has since evolved—from riding solar-powered motorcycles to traveling by night in an electric car powered by solar panels stored in a trailer. While the car is charging during the day, Fitzgerald and van Haaren will visit schools, universities, and other venues to educate the public about solar energy and what it can do. The trip will start on Columbia's Morningside Heights campus, and their itinerary includes stops in Baltimore, Kansas City, Denver, and Los Angeles. The projected length of the journey is 17 days, but van Haaren explains that the length of the trip is contingent upon the weather. "If you have an overcast day, you would only generate 15 percent of the electricity you would on a normal day," van Haaren said. "But the whole trip is about educating the average person about solar energy and electric vehicles." In addition to educating the general public, van Haaren and Fitzgerald aspire to make solar energy technologies more available for SEAS students to study and research. They are working with SEAS to expand the curriculum in photovoltaic education. Professor Vasilis Fthenakis, director of the Center for Life Cycle Analysis and van Haaren's Ph.D. research advisor, is working to increase the department's focus on solar energy and sustainability. His department recently added the course "Photovoltaic Systems Engineering and Sustainability," and it is already popular among SEAS undergraduates. "Given the students' keen interest in renewable energy, solar market growth, and the national and global need for clean energy, it is prudent that we should not only encourage our students, but grow the department in this area," Fthenakis said. Fthenakis said he also believes that offering a master's degree in renewable energy would serve student interest well. From the days when van Haaren and Fitzgerald talked about sustainability at parties to the final stages of preparations for what they are calling Solar Journey USA, the two have been extremely committed to sustainable development. "When they see our project they might think, 'Oh, solar is pretty cool, and it's getting closer,'" van Haaren said. "They might trade in their big pickup truck for an electric car." Even van Haaren's backpack is an indication that solar energy is "getting closer." It is equipped with a mini-solar panel that powers a battery which charges his cell phone and iPod. "We're running this sustainability race right now," van Harren said, "moving from fossil fuel power, the electricity generation, to something cleaner." Fthenakis said he applauds his students for their ingenuity. "They are the young ambassadors of our school and the country," Fthenakis said.

SEAS Research solar energy