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PHIL WIELAND: Solar car owner still following his star

PHIL WIELAND: Solar car owner still following his star

Phil Wieland column for Aug. 8, 2009

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In June, Marcelo da Luz stopped in Valparaiso on a journey covering more than 22,000 miles, and his car had yet to use up its first gallon of gas. Now that's an mpg rating.

The car runs on sunlight, which the oil sheiks haven't figured out a way to charge extortionate prices for yet. As long as his solar cells and batteries hold out, he's cruising for free. That means his car will pay for itself in about 200 years.

As I wrote in June, the car cost close to $500,000 to build -- even with a lot of volunteer labor. You can't pick one of these babies off the lot. With his do-it-yourself model, da Luz hopes to prove the technology is available to build a car that won't contribute to global warming and make oceanfront property out of Nebraska.

Last summer he drove from Buffalo, N.Y., to Inuvik on the edge of the Arctic Circle in Canada. In April he plans to drive the longest ice road in the world from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk (it means "looks like a caribou") in the Northwest Territories and then head for the southern tip of South America, apparently to thaw out because the car has no heater.

Or air conditioner. Imagine touring the tropics in summer in a closed vehicle with no A/C. At least he doesn't have a carload of kids asking, "Are we there yet?" every two minutes. That could be a big reason he built the car as a one-person vehicle.

The car is low and thin and covered with solar cells. In Alaska, a woman called police to report it as a UFO. He was stopped by a British Columbia police officer, who questioned the car's suitability for the highway. A woman stopped and asked if the officer intended to arrest da Luz. When the officer said no, she said that was good because she was prepared to fight him.

It takes just 900 watts to power the car. A toaster requires 1,000 watts, and you can't drive it anywhere. The biggest threat would be a hailstorm or the rocks kicked up by passing vehicles, which could damage the fragile solar cells.

The 450-mile Dempster Highway to Inuvik is a dirt and gravel road traveled mostly by truckers. The owner of a truck stop at the road's southern terminus said da Luz wouldn't make it. Despite the low arctic sun, rains that washed out parts of the road and made the rest like riding in a washing machine, da Luz completed the round trip in 10 days.

Da Luz means "of the light" in Portuguese, so, it's almost like he's living his destiny. His Web site www.xof1.com tells how to join him as a volunteer or "adopt a kilometer."

The opinions are those of the writer. He can be reached at phil.wieland@nwi.com or (219) 548-4352.

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