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PV system aims to harness energy of 2,000 suns

24 Apr 2013

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A collaboration to develop an affordable but powerful photovoltaic (PV) system has been announced by scientists this week. The PV system will have the capability to concentrate solar radiation 2,000 times and 80 per cent of incoming radiation will be converted into useful energy. The same system will also be able to provide cool air and desalinated water in sunny and remote locations.

A three-year, $2.4 million grant from the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation has been awarded to scientists at IBM Research; Airlight Energy, a supplier of solar power technology; ETH Zurich (Professorship of Renewable Energy Carriers) and Interstate University of Applied Sciences Buchs NTB (Institute for Micro- and Nanotechnology MNT) to research and develop an economical High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal (HCPVT) system.

Based on a study by the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association and Greenpeace International, technically, it would only take two per cent of the solar energy from the Sahara Desert to supply the world's electricity needs. Unfortunately, current solar technologies on the market today are too expensive and slow to produce, require rare Earth minerals and lack the efficiency to make such massive installations practical.

System features

The prototype HCPVT system uses a large parabolic dish, made from a multitude of mirror facets, which are attached to a sun tracking system. The tracking system positions the dish at the best angle to capture the sun's rays, which then reflect off the mirrors onto several microchannel-liquid cooled receivers with triple junction photovoltaic chips—each 1x1 centimeter chip can convert 200-250 watts, on average, over a typical eight hour day in a sunny region.

The entire receiver combines hundreds of chips and provides 25 kilowatts of electrical power. The photovoltaic chips are mounted on micro-structured layers that pipe liquid coolants within a few tens of micrometres off the chip to absorb the heat and draw it away 10 times more effective than with passive air cooling.

The coolant maintains the chips almost at the same temperature for a solar concentration of 2,000 times and can keep them at safe temperatures up to a solar concentration of 5,000 times.

The direct cooling solution with very small pumping power is inspired by the hierarchical branched blood supply system of the human body and has been already tested by IBM scientists in high performance computers, including Aquasar. An initial demonstrator of the multi-chip receiver was developed in a previous collaboration between IBM and the Egypt Nanotechnology Research Center.


IBM Research harnesses energy of 2,000 suns


"We plan to use triple-junction photovoltaic cells on a micro-channel cooled module which can directly convert more than 30 per cent of collected solar radiation into electrical energy and allow for the efficient recovery of an additional 50 per cent waste heat," said Bruno Michel, manager, advanced thermal packaging at IBM Research. "We believe that we can achieve this with a very practical design that is made of lightweight and high strength concrete, which is used in bridges, and primary optics composed of inexpensive pneumatic mirrors—it's frugal innovation, but builds on decades of experience in microtechnology.

"The design of the system is elegantly simple," said Andrea Pedretti, chief technology officer at Airlight Energy. "We replace expensive steel and glass with low cost concrete and simple pressurized metalized foils. The small high-tech components, in particular the microchannel coolers and the molds, can be manufactured in Switzerland with the remaining construction and assembly done in the region of the installation. This leads to a win-win situation where the system is cost competitive and jobs are created in both regions."


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