Page One

Skaters get their power from the sun

By Jon MaysDaily Planet staff
Monday August 20, 2001

When Jonah Most told his mother that he was looking for something to do this summer, she suggested that he get a special project going – something like creating a solar-powered skateboard. 

So Most, 12, hooked up with Daniel Holtmann-Rice, 15, and Tom Burchill, 20, and got to work in June. The trio knew each other through skateboarding and building ramps in their quiet north Berkeley neighborhood. Burchill is a Volkswagen enthusiast who likes to rebuild engines and has a shed full of auto parts. In short, he’s a gearhead. Most characterized Holtmann-Rice as “the computer genius.” 

Now, two months later, they are putting together a three-person, six-foot-long skateboard that will be powered completely by the sun. 

“I never worked with electric motors before. I never worked with alternative transportation, especially a four-wheeled machine. So when [Most’s] mom popped the challenge, I was extremely excited,” Burchill said.  

The group hopes to have the skateboard – fashioned after the Maherajah-style board popular in the 70s – running in time for the Solano Stroll early next month and perfected in time for the “How Berkeley Can You Be?” parade in October. After that, Most said they may consider offering rides to people or create something more involved and interactive for the Earth Day festival. 

“We haven’t really decided what that will be. We’re open to suggestions,” Most said. “We want it to be a hands-on thing.” 

The skateboard is not yet tested or even completely constructed, but the group is confident it will work. By cannibalizing an axle and gear drive assembly from a push lawn mower and combining it with two 12-volt batteries, computer and motors from a recently donated electric wheelchair – the skateboard has enough juice to make it go.  

But the group wanted to make sure it would use renewable energy, so they are going to hook the batteries up to a backpack fitted with a two-foot by three-foot solar panel. The panel will trickle-charge the battery on sunny days. Although the wheelchair motors have the technology to turn, they want to use its energy for straight-away power and incorporate a skateboard’s natural foot-turning method. 

To accomplish that, they constructed a sandal on the top of the board that will turn a gear system below the board connected to four nine-and-a-half-inch wheels.  

They still haven’t figured out how exactly that will work and are experimenting with a fan belt from a tractor and grip tape from a skateboard.  

The wheelchair has motors powerful enough to travel about 10 mph while carrying a 300-pound person, but by reducing the gear ratio with smaller wheels, Holtmann-Rice said it will have enough torque to carry 350 pounds about seven mph. 

The group makes regular trips to the hardware store and spends quite a bit of time asking for grants and donations. Most said they have garnered the attention of city councilmembers Linda Maio and Miriam Hawley as well as Access Innovations of Hayward — the company that donated the wheelchair.  

City Councilmember Kriss Worthington is helping the trio get a solar panel — the most expensive component of their invention — donated.  

The sum total of their efforts adds up to about 20 to 25 hours a week.  

“It’s pretty much like a part-time job,” Burchill said.  

It’s fairly good practice though, since eventually Burchill said he would like to work as a solar systems installer. Next, they plan on reconstructing the donated wheelchair and donating to someone who needs it.  

“We want to give it back because it was given to us so easily,” he said.  

With less than a month before the Solano Stroll, the group is focusing on the task at hand.  

“It will be working by Sept. 9, we’re not so sure about the solar panel, but it’ll be moving,” Most said.  

And Most said it will definitely be ready to carry them the length of the Berkeley parade. 

“It’ll be regenerating itself throughout the parade,” he said. “Especially if it’s a nice day.” 


For more information on the project or to make donations, e-mail Most at