• Posted Aug 5, 2003

Power your electronic devices with the sun! Our Story...

The story of how we harnessed the sun on RAGBRAI XXXI.

You know how it goes... You pack for RAGBRAI, but it is hard to pack without some sort of electronic device these days. The cell phone, the digital camera, the MP3 player, and maybe even GPS or a stereo battery...

The age old question: how do I keep these things powered all week long with limited access to AC plug-ins?

I was lucky enough to inquire about a solar panel from Iowa Thin Film Technologies in Ames, Iowa a few weeks before RAGBRAI.

I didn't know it at the time, but Iowa Thin Film Technologies (ITFT) developed the world’s first thin film amorphous silicon transistor on a plastic substrate using a true roll-to-roll manufacturing process.
[OK.. too much techie talk for ya?? Try this...]
Iowa Thin Film Technologies has developed the world’s first rollable lightweight, waterproof and durable solar panel that is very efficient.

After several discussions, ITFT agreed to sponsor our ride across Iowa with 3 solar panels.

The Goal: NOT to have to charge the stereo battery or the cell phone all week with nothing but solar power.

We went self-contained this year, and hauled a trailer out with us which provided a perfect platform for the larger solar panels. Here is a pic of the trailer set-up.
The 2 large panels on the trailer power a battery used to run the stereo and the lights for nighttime riding. Yes, I converted all my lights to 12 volt so I wouldn't have to carry another battery and charger with us!

The small panel you can barely see on the left pannier is used to charge the cell phone. NOTE: teh small panel is half the size of one of the large panels. Is IS small enough to fit on a trunk bag on a rack if you don't carry panniers.

The solar panels we took on RAGBRAI were not actually out on the market yet, so we were in a sense a guinea pig, or shall I say "the mules" to see how the panels would perform in an environment such as a week long bicycle tour.

We actually rode from Des Moines to Glenwood, so we got in a few more 'test' days (and nights).

The panels worked flawlessly on the ride out. The stereo battery will usually last most of a day and then start to fizzle out in the late evening. Since I run lights off the same battery I often had to turn the music down or off in order to conserve enough power to run the lights at nighttime.

NOT the case with the solar panels onboard. I constantly maintained a 100% battery charge, and the good thing was that I could just park the bike at night, and the sun would keep on charging it while I was still asleep! I just had to be cognizant not to park under a tree or a park building.

The small panel worked great as well! The only thing I did was to switch the position of the panel mid day in order to gain maximum exposure. In the morning I started it off on the left side of the bike, and in the afternoon, I moved it to the right side to follow the sun.

The only day I noticed that we did not get as much charge as the other days was the 1st day of RAGBRAI when we found ourselves on the Wabash trail.

The trail is mostly gravel and tree covered. You can understand the lack of sun, but I didn't expect all the dust that arose from the trail. Everything became dusty including us and the solar panels. I could hear my cell phone's charger switching on and off at times when there was more shade than sun. At day's end, the charge was approx. 50%, and I ran the stereo full power all day and some lights at night, so I know I still got some charge, but not as much as full sunlight on a paved road would have gave us.

The last 2 days of RAGBRAI we decided to drop the trailer and just haul the necessities in our panniers. We were loaded down and it was a welcome relief to be able to see some speed increases! We always pack too much anyway.

This meant, we were losing the 2 large solar panels. I switched the stereo battery connector to the small solar panel and away we went. The small panel output is 1/3 of an amp while the 2 larger panels output 1.2 amps.

1/3 of an amp should have been enough to maintain the battery and give some extra life at the end of the day, and it did! The small panel came through with flying colors! I was coming in at night with still a 50% charge on the battery. I was very happy with the small panel's performance.

Overview: I have looked at solar panels for a long time, but didn't buy any because the weight of the panel was too heavy or the output was so minimal it was not worth carrying.

The rollable series by Iowa Thin Film Technologies are not only light weight and efficient, but they are very very durable and waterproof as well.

The panels definitely were put to the test as we did not 'baby' them at all. The panels performed above any expectations I had. Nothing broke, and all connectors remained tight and functional.

I think what intrigues me most about the solar technology is not only is it environmental friendly, but this stuff was developed right here in Central Iowa!!!

You've heard of the solar powered cars that Iowa State university competes with... Well this is the same technology. The military is even testing the rollable panels for use in remote locations, etc.

I even loaned a small solar panel to an electronics professor at D.M.A.C.C. and he said the output was even more than what was described in the specifications. He was very impressed with the panel and it's output. becomes an Iowa Thin Film Solar Panel retailer
That's right... The solar panels are now for sale right here on BIKEIOWA. There is even a solar powered headphone that sounds better than most MP3 players!


I will continue to bring the panels on bike rides, etc. Just holler if you want to check one out.

By the way, the guys at Iowa Thin Film Technologies (ITFT) have been great to work with!

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  • Modified: Sep 2, 2018 by bikeiowa







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