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Ice Buildup on Solar Panels No More: Researchers Find Solution

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Specialists have recently discovered the solution to a problem that could potentially threaten all man-made structures: the build-up of ice on their surfaces.

Scientists have been observing that dangerous amounts of ice are occasionally building up on sensitive objects such as solar panels and power lines for years, however, they never found a solution to this issue until now.

While this phenomenon is not life-threatening most of the time, it is hard to ignore the dangers posed by a power cable that snaps under the weight of the ice attached to it, or the decreased efficiency of a frozen wind turbine.

Researchers working for the Norwegian University of Science and Technology have began exploring a potential solution to this problem. They are looking at ways to remove the ice build-up by cracking it.

Now, a research team at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) is working with a novel approach to prevent ice build-up– by cracking it.

Classical methods are not efficient

The method used until now implied spraying a thin layer of silicone on various surfaces in order to prevent the buildup of ice. This can be seen in the case of airplanes which are coated with de-icing fluid, in order to stop ice from sticking to their wings or other vital components.

While this method of resolving the issue may work for vehicles, it is not practical when it comes to industrial applications. Offshore rigs, wind turbines and solar panels can be sprayed with this substance, however, it would not be effective.

Cracking ice layers

The scientivic community has also created superhydrophobic substances that can repel water. The idea behind their use is that ice cannot form if all the water that could potentially freeze simply slides of the coated surfaces.

The water repellant substances can be used in order to cover any type of substance, however, they are not environmentally safe, and their use is controlled. Furthermore, scientists are not sure for how much time would have to pass before the coating would have to be reapplied.

This has led to the development of another method of handling the ice problem. The scientists at the NTNU Nanomechanical Lab have decided to allow ice to build up and to crack it once it does.

The new idea has motivated the researchers to explore the possibility of using physical forces in order to create nanofisures in ice, in order to break it.

The solution that they found is to build microscopic bumps(micro-crack initiators, or MICI) into the surface of the object that they want protected. These initiators favor the development of microcracks at the contact between the surface and the layer of ice.

There are also chemical based solutions that do the exact same thing (nano-crack initiators, or NACI), however none of these initiators are particularly effective at breaking ice.

The next step for the scientists was to add another structure below the surface in order to create macro-cracks at the point where the ice touches the surface. This new mechanism was called MACI (macro-crack initiator), and has proved to be effective enough to be considered a definitive solution to the ice build-up issue.

MACI core principle and design

The scientist team created layers with microholes and pillars throughout them, which they covered with a thin film of polydimethylsiloxane. They then started testing different designs for the MAXI inner structures.  The results of the tests have shown that the MACI substructures had an ice adhesion strength of over 50% weaker than normal surfaces.

The new MACI technologies means that we are able to keep the ice build-up issue under control without using substances that could damage the environment. Furthermore, the technology can be used in a variety of machines and structures. From vehicles that operate in Arctic regions, to solar panels and electric cables, scientists have stated that MACI can be used in a variety of industries.

Furthermore, the fact that the solution to this problem is, in fact, a structure, means that regular it must not be applied to surfaces, but built into them.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. That’s interesting, but isn’t it likely that where there is ice, there is also snow, which this solution does not seem to address? Still, if this does not reduce PV conversion, this could be good news. So far, we don’t have real life data on this. I don’t think these micro spikes will be a problem for packaging or washing panels or other operations, but it does require real life testing.

    50% less adherence may also not be sufficient for self-deicing and will probably require physical operations to actually remove the ice.

    For me, the best anti-ice and anti-snow solution is hot air. Solar panels are usually about 2 cm thick for a PV film that’s 1 mm thick. These extra 2 cm are for the frame, but also allow the air to circulate underneath to cool the PV thin film. It’s a no-brainer to provide hot air at the bottom in order to melt ice and snow. Heating air costs less than heating water, but maybe you don’t even need to heat air at all: A Canadian well would provide underground air that’s hot enough to melt ice and snow, and cool enough to counter summer heat. It’s a bit of an infrastructure though, so it’s best for new buildings, if you plan it in the foundations for the cellar, for instance. It’s easy to integrate such a solution to a house, a whole field array of solar panels would require a different solution.

    The thing with ice and snow melting is that you need to run this hot air constantly, you can’t leave thick layers accumulate or it will destroy gutters and destroy anything or anyone under the roof.

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