Saturday, May 31, 2008

Students bring cheap solar to the world


Solar power for the masses!
That's the rallying cry for a group of students at MIT who are working on a cheap prototype for a concentrated solar power system, using already mass-produced materials and simplified assembly procedures.
Solar-concentrating systems created so far have been built of customized, high-end materials that are intended to maximize efficiency. The specialization hikes up the cost and technology needed, for now at least.
But the team of students, led by mechanical engineering grad student Spencer Ahrens, has come up with a prototype that one day could be mass-produced. The system is a 12-foot-square mirrored dish that concentrates sunlight by a factor of 1,000.
Keeping in mind their goal of future mass-production, the students chose materials based on low cost and accessibility. So, rather than a smooth, tailor-made parabolic surface that directs sunlight to a focus, the students used 10-inch-wide by 12-foot-long strips of lightweight bathroom-type mirror glass mounted on a frame of aluminum tubing constructed to be snapped easily into the right shape.
The dish can track the sun automatically across the sky using a simple control mechanism of photocells mounted on each side of the dish and powered by small electric motors that align the dish into its optimal position.
While the components may be common, this kind of solar power system isn't intended for individual use like other new solar technology because the highly concentrated dose of sun rays could pose potential dangers.
Rather, the system would be used in fenced utility-scale fields. The students also have to take precautions during construction, including wearing all-white clothing to reflect the light and safety goggles to protect their eyes.
Eventually, Ahrens hopes that in mass-production the solar dish can be competitive with other energy sources, be easily constructed even in developing countries, and do double duty of producing heat for space heating and electric power at the same time.
With the solar industry already booming, cost-effective production of solar power is in the foreseeable future.
Via MIT NewsPhoto by Donna Coveney

No comments: