SWARTHMORE Amid an ordinary day of teaching classes and supervising lab experiments, Swarthmore College instructor Carr Everbach got the sort of call one afternoon that most professors never receive.
A solar panel on a police car was smoking, the caller said.
Everbach found himself running to the police station to help handle the smoldering car, the sort of town-gown collaboration that he had not imagined. He helped stopped the panel from smoking, and if his ongoing experiment is a success, he plans to provide more assistance to the Swarthmore Borough Police Department than just amateur firefighting. He wants to let it run its cars partly on solar energy.
The idea was Mayor Rick Lowe's brainchild. Having heard about similar projects elsewhere, he envisioned a police car powered in part by the sun, and asked the president of the college to make it happen. She provided the funding, about $1,200, for a prototype. Kara Bledsoe, now a sophomore at the college, spent the last summer designing and testing the system. And on the one day that the police department could spare a working police car from its fleet, Bledsoe and Everbach worked rapidly to install the battery, three solar panels, and some wiring.
Since then, the car has been patrolling Swarthmore while soaking up the sun. And aside from that time that the panel started smoking, due to a problem that has since been fixed, the experiment is going smoothly, Everbach said.
Police officers spend a lot of their time sitting in place in their cars, Everbach said. They are not driving, but they need to keep their radio and other devices running. Usually, they simply idle their cars.
The goal of the Swarthmore prototype is to use solar power to fuel a second battery for the car. The radio and other devices get their power from that battery. Officers can turn off their cars rather than idling - which means saving lots of money on gasoline - and they will not use up their main battery.
"What we have allowed them to do is to focus on their job and not think about whether the car's going to start," Everbach said. "They have to fight crime and chase the bad guys. . . . They don't have to worry about running down their batteries as much as they used to."
Everbach is tracking police officers' usage of the car to see how much the solar-powered battery reduces the time they spend idling and to make sure that the solar panels provide enough power even during the dim wintry months. At the end of the year, he plans to publish the results and perhaps look toward replicating the technology for other police departments.
But he won't rule out any more fiery mishaps.
"It's a prototype," he said. "No prototype has worked perfectly, ever. You don't see the Wright brothers' plane flying around much anymore."