3D solar towers could up power output by 20%

Researchers have come up with innovative 3D solar panel designs, which could offer power output ranging from double to more than 20 times.

Last Updated: Mar 28, 2012, 00:56 AM IST

Washington: Researchers have come up with innovative 3D solar panel designs, which could offer power output ranging from double to more than 20 times that of traditional fixed flat panels with the same base area.

Intensive research around the world has focused on improving the performance of solar photovoltaic cells and bringing down their cost. But very little attention has been paid to the best ways of arranging those cells, which are typically placed flat on a rooftop or other surface, or sometimes attached to motorized structures that keep the cells pointed toward the sun as it crosses the sky.

Now, a team of MIT researchers has come up with a very different approach: building cubes or towers that extend the solar cells upward in three-dimensional configurations.

The biggest boosts in power were seen in the situations where improvements are most needed: in locations far from the equator, in winter months and on cloudier days.

The new findings are based on both computer modelling and outdoor testing of real modules.

“I think this concept could become an important part of the future of photovoltaics,” said the paper``s senior author, Jeffrey Grossman, the Carl Richard Soderberg Career Development Associate Professor of Power Engineering at MIT.

The MIT team initially used a computer algorithm to explore an enormous variety of possible configurations, and developed analytic software that can test any given configuration under a whole range of latitudes, seasons and weather.

Then, to confirm their model’s predictions, they built and tested three different arrangements of solar cells on the roof of an MIT laboratory building for several weeks.

While the cost of a given amount of energy generated by such 3-D modules exceeds that of ordinary flat panels, the expense is partially balanced by a much higher energy output for a given footprint, as well as much more uniform power output over the course of a day, over the seasons of the year, and in the face of blockage from clouds or shadows.

These improvements make power output more predictable and uniform, which could make integration with the power grid easier than with conventional systems, the authors say.

The basic physical reason for the improvement in power output — and for the more uniform output over time — is that the 3-D structures’ vertical surfaces can collect much more sunlight during mornings, evenings and winters, when the sun is closer to the horizon, said co-author Marco Bernardi, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE).

The time is ripe for such an innovation, Grossman adds, because solar cells have become less expensive than accompanying support structures, wiring and installation.

As the cost of the cells themselves continues to decline more quickly than these other costs, they say, the advantages of 3-D systems will grow accordingly.

“Even 10 years ago, this idea wouldn’t have been economically justified because the modules cost so much,” Grossman said.

But now, he added, “the cost for silicon cells is a fraction of the total cost, a trend that will continue downward in the near future.”

Currently, up to 65 percent of the cost of photovoltaic (PV) energy is associated with installation, permission for use of land and other components besides the cells themselves.

Although computer modelling by Grossman and his colleagues showed that the biggest advantage would come from complex shapes — such as a cube where each face is dimpled inward — these would be difficult to manufacture, said co-author Nicola Ferralis, a research scientist in DMSE.

The team analysed both simpler cubic and more complex accordion-like shapes in their rooftop experimental tests.

At first, the researchers were distressed when almost two weeks went by without a clear, sunny day for their tests. But then, looking at the data, they realized they had learned important lessons from the cloudy days, which showed a huge improvement in power output over conventional flat panels.

For an accordion-like tower — the tallest structure the team tested — the idea was to simulate a tower that “you could ship flat, and then could unfold at the site,” Grossman says. Such a tower could be installed in a parking lot to provide a charging station for electric vehicles, he says.

So far, the team has modelled individual 3-D modules. A next step is to study a collection of such towers, accounting for the shadows that one tower would cast on others at different times of day.

In general, 3-D shapes could have a big advantage in any location where space is limited, such as flat-rooftop installations or in urban environments, they said. Such shapes could also be used in larger-scale applications, such as solar farms, once shading effects between towers are carefully minimized.

The research has been published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

ANI