HighTechScience.org Installs
Solar Powered Outdoor Railroad Exhibit

at the South Florida Science Museum

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The following appeared August 31, 2007 in the

Solar-powered miniature train makes maiden run as part of exhibit

By Sally Apgar
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted September 1, 2007

 WEST PALM BEACH - People are waiting on the "Solar City" train platform. One is a businessman, sporting a 1950s-era brown fedora. His gray suit jacket hangs over his left arm and a brown briefcase dangles from his right hand. He looks almost like he's sweating in the hot sun. A long-legged boy in a red T-shirt and shorts is lounging on a wooden bench, hot dog in hand.

    These life-like miniature figures are waiting for the "Solar City Express," a solar-powered passenger train that takes its maiden run today as part of a new exhibit at the South Florida Science Museum. Visitors can run the passenger train, a cattle and freight train or a circus train from a control panel with red and green buttons and learn how solar energy is converted into electricity that flows through the metal tracks to power the toy locomotives pulling the trains.

   "Florida is the Sunshine State, so it makes sense to design the train system with solar power," said Rick Newman, a Boca Raton businessman who serves on the museum's board and is the idea man behind the exhibit.

    "The whole layout hearkens back to the established East Coast railroad days when train travel was still a large part of daily transportation," said Newman, who donated about $16,000 of the $20,000 needed to build the exhibit.

    Newman, who also loaned the museum his 7-foot-tall robots and various space artifacts, including a Russian cosmonaut suit, said that with the push for alternative energy, he wanted to increase environmental awareness and show how solar power works. At the same time, he wanted to do a tribute to Florida's railroad history by building a 1950s town and showcasing trains pulled by steam engines, which were replaced by the end of that decade with diesel and electric engines.

    The toy model passenger train with cars the size of children's shoe boxes shuttles through an interactive town that includes a row of homes with palm trees, a swank space-saucer styled diner with miniature waitresses on roller skates, a church, factory, ornate Palace Theater and even a traveling circus with a red big top tent and clowns. In addition to a farm, the town also has a fire station, general store, hardware store and liquor store. There are more than 500 pieces including an operational Ferris wheel, railroad crossings and a signal tower.

    "Newman is the electronic whiz kid who had the idea of converting the trains to solar power," said Bill Ryan of RC Hobbies in Tamarac, which sells model trains. The store donated track and steam engines to the project.

    Ryan said the passenger train uses one of the oldest passenger trains made by Aristo-Craft Trains of Irvington, NJ. The Solar City Express includes a Pullman, observation and dining car along with a combination car that carries both luggage and mail.

    "In the era of FedEx, kids don't realize that the mail once was carried mostly by railroad," Ryan said.

    There is also a freight train carrying livestock, metal and minerals.

    Newman won every science fair he ever entered as a child and never went to college, hopes to inspire children about science. He has built a company, High-Tech Productions Inc., which provides services such as converting VHS tapes to DVD's for the military and corporate clients and designs sound, light and video systems for nightclubs, resorts and theaters.

    Once his business made cash, Newman started collecting: robots, space artifacts (particularly Russian ones, which are easier to procure than American ones), electric cars and now model trains.

    Carlos Santos, exhibit curator, smiles over the tiny town as he explains how solar power works.

    "The solar panels collect the sunlight and convert it to electricity, which gets sent to the charge controller," said Santos.

    From the controller, the energy is sent to deep-cycle batteries that store the energy and send electricity through the train tracks to drive the electric motors inside the locomotives. A power converter converts 12 volts DC to 110 volts AC.

    In the 1950s, Bell Labs revisited a technology invented by French scientist Edmund Becquerel, who discovered in 1839 that certain materials emit a spark of electricity when struck by sunlight. Using silicon, Bell produced solar or "photovoltaic" cells that could convert sunlight to electricity. Today, those cells help to power spaceships and satellites.

    A full explanation of how the solar train works is at www.sfsm.org/solarexpress.html.

The South Florida Science Museum is located at:
4801 Dreher Trail N., West Palm Beach.

   For more info, call 561-832-01988 or visit www.SFSM.org

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