The path to solar-powered enlightenment
December 2, 2006 6:51 PM   Subscribe

Electronics have always interested me (see, see, see), especially solar power. In hopes of learning as much about it as I can, I'll be taking a few select Electronics courses at my local technical college next semester (and beyond). My question is which courses should I take to reach my goal the quickest.

I'll be taking the classes as a non-degree seeking student, so I only want to take classes that might help me learn more about, or be applicable to the field of solar electronics. The list of available courses are:

+ Circuit Analysis I
+ Circuit Analysis II
+ Linear Electronics
+ Digital Electronics
+ Computer Hardware
+ Telecommunications Fundamentals
+ Operating Systems Technology
+ Computer Interfacing
+ Microcomputer Applications
+ BEAM Robotics
+ Programmable Control
+ PLC Systems
+ Automated Systems/Robotics

Full course descriptions here (pdf, sorry). I know the first two are no-brainers, as they're prerequisites for pretty much every other course, but what others would be helpful on my quest of being able to understand, design, and start building my own solar-powered gadgets?
posted by bjork24 to Science & Nature (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Solar power stuff is reasonably simple. You'll want the linear electronics one by the look of things, since that covers power supplies, but none of the others look like they would help you much. Maybe pick some other based on what sort of gadgets you want to build.
posted by markr at 7:09 PM on December 2, 2006

Defintely linear electronics. Reviewing your other questions (mainly the LED one) I'd add digital electronics. Making things light up is fine, but making it react to input is when you really start to get interesting.

If you were interested in how this all works, on a fundemental level, I'd recomend a solid state components course. But that doesn't appear to be among your options.
posted by sbutler at 7:21 PM on December 2, 2006

BEAM is worth looking into as well. It depends totally on what type of course it is, but you could potentionally learn a bit about simple analog circuits.
posted by phrontist at 7:47 PM on December 2, 2006

*potentially (no pun intended)
posted by phrontist at 7:48 PM on December 2, 2006

What sort of solar powered gadgets do you intend to build?

You don't actually need any formal coursework to make use of solar panels. Just read the data sheets and use the appropriate solar panel where you would use batteries.

You can probably get packaged solar panels with 9v or 12v output that can be used in place of power bricks. Be sure to use a panel that can supply enough current for your application.

If you want to understand how solar panels work, look into solid state physics or solid state chemistry. If you want to understand how electricity and basic electrical components work, take Electricity and Magnetism (physics).

Regardless of whether you take the EE or Chem/Physics route, you will need strong calculus skills.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:53 PM on December 2, 2006

See if MIT's OpenCourseware electrical engineering and computer science has anything that floats your boat (or charges your photovoltaic in this case).

Remember that you might not waste your time with something sidereal because you could pick up a higher level insight into your own studies.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:08 PM on December 2, 2006

In terms of laying down a good foundation for understanding circuit components and how they work when they come together to form a circuit , Circuit Analysis I & II is what your looking for.

After those two, the Linear Circuits course would be the next closest to aiding you in terms of your stated goals since the description says it will talk about power supplies.

Those courses will give you the understanding you'll need to take a more advanced course on power electronics. However the curriculum listed is lacking a course specifically on power electronics that describes how AC electrical distribution works, three phase circuits, AC/DC conversion (especially DC-AC conversion for solar power) etc.

This kind of course can be found in any university Electrical Engineering curriculum.

If looking into other schools is no problem, here is a description for a course along the lines of what you should be looking for. Of course, the best would be a course specifically about solar power but that would most likely be at the graduate level and more technical than what your looking for.

Since solar electronics could mean a lot of things it would be best if you described your application specifically. (Do you want to make a solar calculator, solar car or a solar powered house?)
posted by toftflin at 8:28 PM on December 2, 2006

Thanks for all the good pointers thus far.

@toftflin, et al: as for what I want to do with solar... ? I'm not sure really. I've just always been really intrigued by the idea of solar power and want to learn as much about is as I can... maybe power my house or car with it some day. I realize though that I'll need a fundamental understanding of electricity / circuits before I can learn more about any sort of electric-producing device.

I appreciate all the comments, and would love to see some more. Thanks!
posted by bjork24 at 8:36 PM on December 2, 2006

maybe power my house or car with it some day. I realize though that I'll need a fundamental understanding of electricity / circuits before I can learn more about any sort of electric-producing device.

The beauty of electricity is that you don't have to have a fundamental understanding of it to make use of it. The two applications you list require resource management skills, not electrical engineering skills to solve.

Solar panels don't provide much power. If you want to power a house or car then you need to minimize your power requirements. A good solar house needs excellent insulation, natural ventilation, low-power appliances, etc. Practically, it makes sense to stop right there. The solar panels are expensive, and you will need a battery bank to store power for nights and cloudy days. Unless you *have* to be off grid (no power where you live, or you are just crazy) it is probably smarter to just minimize your use of grid power.

Similarly, solar only really makes sense for ultra-light, low power cars. Such cars will be much less safe on the road, and are probably best avoided. Regardless, the engineering difficulty is in making a car that has power requirements that are low enough to be fulfilled by current solar technology, not in electrical engineering.

Solar applications would certainly benefit from better solar cells. If you want to make better cells, then you need to spend a long time studying physics, chemistry, and materials science. Then you need to convince a lab to pay you to do your research.

But really, do your own research. Google around for information about solar panels. Do the math to see how much power you need for your house. Find out how many solar panels you would need, and how much sun they would need. A few hours of googling and some basic math will answer your questions.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:15 PM on December 2, 2006

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