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Science activity

Make a solar motor

In the following activity, solar energy is used to create motion or kinetic energy in a pinwheel.

Create your own solar motor with household materials

Create your own solar motor with household materials.

What is solar energy? Go out during the daytime and it’s all around you — radiant energy in the form of light and heat.

We use solar energy every day. Heat from sunlight is used to dry clothes on clotheslines. Many buildings are designed to take advantage of the sun’s energy — some have lots of windows to let sunlight in, or include materials that absorb the sun’s heat to help keep the building warm. Greenhouses capture both light and heat to help plants grow. Even our clothes can be designed with the sun in mind — dark colours keep us warm (black absorbs heat) and light colours keep us cool (white reflects sunlight).

In recent decades, technologies using solar collector panels have been designed to capture energy from the sun and convert it to electricity. Solar power can be used to heat water for homes, power spacecraft and charge batteries.

Follow the instructions below to make your own solar motor.


  • Three tin cans (large soup cans)
  • Can opener
  • Masking tape
  • Thumb tacks or straight pins with heads
  • One sheet of white paper or aluminium foil 15 cm square
  • Scissors
  • Wire
  • Two bricks, wooden blocks or stacks of books


Step 1 Step 1 Step 1

1. Use the can opener to remove both ends from the three large cans. Be careful of sharp edges. Tape the cans together to form a column.

Step 1 Step 1 Step 1

2. Make a pinwheel. Cut a 15-cm sheet of paper or aluminium foil diagonally from each corner to within 1 centimetre of the centre. Bend every other point back to the centre of the square. Tape the points together at the centre.

Step 1 Step 1

3. Bend a piece of wire into an ?elbow? shape and tape it, elbow up, on both sides of the top of the tin can column. Tape a thumb tack or straight pin (point up) to the piece of wire at the elbow.

4. Find a spot indoors that receives direct sunlight, such as a windowsill or table. Position the tin can column on top of two supports (such as the bricks).

5. Leave enough room between the bricks to ensure that there is space between the ground and the bottom of the tin can column.

6. Balance the pinwheel on the pin in the middle of the tin can column.

What happens?

As the heat of the sun warms the air inside the column, the pinwheel will start to spin.

Solar Engine

Extra activities

Experiment with other materials to make the pinwheel turn faster. What happens if you change the colour on the inside or outside of the tin can column? If the outside is painted black, what happens to the temperature of the air? What happens if you raise the column higher off the ground? Experiment with different materials for the pinwheel.

For more science activities, visit NRC’s Student Science & Tech siteEnd