Harnessing the power of imagination to create solar car

May 15, 2012

By Kirsten Johnson

Jeff Weng, an Issaquah High School senior, stands by his finished solar car. Photo Contributed

His idea was birthed on a sloshy, windy day while he was driving through Seattle. A solar panel — failing to work properly due to the wind and lack of sun — fell off a nearby streetlight, and Jeff Weng had an epiphany.

“It wasn’t really effective in what it was doing,” the Issaquah High School senior said. “I wanted to make something that could counter the environmental limitations that are inherent to living in the Northwest, while having the same advantages of a solar panel in a more sunny environment.”

Weng’s panel idea — along with a go-cart to utilize the invention — became the fruit of his 436 hours of labor last summer. Long days and all-nighters toying around in his garage paid off — Weng now has a pending provisional patent for his weather-savvy, solar panel invention.

Unlike other panels, Weng’s can attract the sun while maintaining a flat profile. The panel attaches to his car, charges its batteries and allows for his vehicle to travel at about 25 miles per hour.

“The panel has the ability to move in all directions through two separate drives and maintain flat while being able to attract,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if the sun’s out, it hits in the right spot in the sky, it will try to look at it to find efficiency.”

With the help of a patent lawyer, Weng filled out a provisional patent application in November. The lengthy process included drafting diagrams of every component of his invention and writing an invention disclosure — stating elements such as a summary of his project, its applications and its capabilities. If Weng improves his current invention, one year from now he can file for a regular issued patent application.

His father, Lee Weng, said Jeff has always loved building things — beginning with Legos. Weng even used the familiar child toy-pieces to construct early models of his vehicle design. In middle school, Weng was member of a team that placed fourth in the world in an international Lego robotics competition.

“That also really helped him to prepare for this project,” Lee Weng said. “It’s using something smaller, Lego pieces, but the principles are the same.”

Randy Whitmer, a friend of Weng’s family, built a gasoline vehicle himself while in college. Like Weng, he remembers the long summer hours spent toiling away alone on his project.

“It takes a lot of effort — not only do you have to be smart and creative but you have to have the dedication to do it,” he said. “That’s why you don’t see many people doing this as students, but it just opens up doors and puts you a little bit above the crowd.”

For Weng, all the effort was well worth it — he wouldn’t put a price tag on his creation.

“It’s really a concept and I would never really sell it,” he said. “I think what it really comes down to is opening people’s eyes and allowing them to see that there are ways to change the world through technological innovation.”

Next year in college, he hopes to attend a school on the caliber of MIT or Stanford and study engineering or a more seemingly unlikely choice — art.

“I’m really into building things that look good and have functionality,” he said. “It’s been my passion.”

Kirsten Johnson is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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