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Groundbreaking Solar-Powered Train Goes On Sonoma County Test Run, Sets Speed Record

SONOMA COUNTY (KPIX 5) -- On a railroad track in Sonoma County, a pair of inventors took the first-ever solar-powered locomotive on a record-setting test, with hopes that one day it could be the fastest vehicle ever powered by the sun.

The old Schellville railroad station dates back to the late 1800s, so it was already standing in 1903 when the Wright Brothers made the first machine-powered flight at Kitty Hawk. Eric Houston sees meaning in that, as he walks to what's parked in the yard behind the station.

"I think it's important to play with technology and to experiment and I think this is a step in that direction," he told KPIX 5.

Houston is co-inventor of a 40-foot long solar array on wheels that is the world's first locomotive powered by the sun.  It weighs 3,400 pounds and has no battery, converting sunlight directly into horsepower—10 to be exact.

Solar Powered Train
Eric Houston on the solar-powered train he co-invented. (CBS)

So, over the weekend, Eric and co-inventor Marco Fucci di Napoli decided to see how fast it could go. And because it's the first of its kind, "anything over zero would have been the record," Houston said with a smile.

Despite overcast skies, the team took the STX-22, short for "solar train with 22 panels," onto a quiet section of track and opened it up.

While it doesn't look fast at all on video, Marco, who was driving that day, said the structure was actually shaking quite badly.

"That was kind of the little worrisome part," di Napoli said, "hey, now I'm pushing a little bit above the limit, what we have tried before."

But like a solar-powered Chuck Yeager, Marco piloted the train to a speed of 30.7 mph, almost 5 mph faster than they were anticipating.

So, how long does Houston think that record might stand? "That's a great question," he said, "maybe until our next run?"

Ryan Martin is the GM of Northwest Pacific Railroad and lent the team use of the tracks on Saturday.  Martin said the STX-22 won't be pulling railcars anytime soon—some of them weigh more than 140 tons—but he says it's important to keep an open mind.

"The sky's the limit," said Martin, "You double the size of this thing, double the speed…you know, we're going off into a different race for transportation."

Next year, they plan to double its size and break the record for any solar-powered vehicle, which now stands at 56 miles per hour.

Some may scoff at the idea of solar power moving something as heavy as a train.  But considering what aviation has become, only a dreamer could have guessed where that flight at Kitty Hawk would eventually take us.

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