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Sunflower Shaped Concentrator to Banish Fossil Fuel Zombies

IBM/Airlight solar concentrator (c) Airlight Energy/dsolar
IBM/Airlight solar concentrator (c) Airlight Energy/dsolar

Like a giant 10 meter (32.8 foot) sunflower, a new kind of solar concentrator developed by IBM Research together with Swiss-based solar supplier, Airlight Energy, promises to make the most of the sun.  The High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal (HCPVT) system concentrates the power of the sun 2,000 times and aims it all at a solar receivers packed with solar cells.  This is enough sun to make Dr. Zomboss and his minions melt in their tracks, not to mention regular solar cells.

And that is where the computer behemoth comes in.  First off, they used a solar cells similar to the ones you find on satellites in space.  Every square centimeter (0.155 inch square) chip produces up to 57 watts on a typical sunny day.  So far so good, except that with so much sun power concentrated on them, the working temperature can go over 1,500 °C (2,732 °F).  The solar cells are mounted on microchannel liquid-cooled receivers, which look like tiny radiators.  These are similar to the cooling systems that IBM uses for its supercomputers, like that used in Europe’s fastest supercomputer in 2012, SuperMUC. The receivers have micro-structured layers, according to IBM, that bring treated water “within fractions of millimeters of the chip to absorb the heat and draw it away 10 times more effectively than with passive air cooling.”  As a result, the water keeps the cells “at safe operating temperatures of 105 °C (221 °F).”

And the high technology doesn’t stop there.  The parabolic dish, which concentrates the solar power, is made of fiber-based concrete that can be made in half a day and which behaves like aluminum.  The best part is that it costs one fifth of the cost of aluminum.  The inside of the parabola is lined with candy-wrapper like recyclable silver coated plastic foil.  The simple design allows contractors to use local labor for the concentrator, making for an easier install.

The system can also be reconfigured to use the heat to provide potable water and even air conditioning!  A solar farm using these HCPVTs can provide enough drinkable water for a whole town.  Cool air can also be produced by using a sorption chiller.  Although liquid sorption chillers can be readily paired to the HCPVT, IBM is working on solid sorption systems that promises to be even cooler.

Unlike a sunflower, this baby will take some time, more than half a century in fact, to wilt.  Scientists at IBM and Airlight expect the HCPVT structure to last 60 years.  The solar cells will have to be replaced every 25 years while the plastic reflectors are expected to last 10-15 years.

You don’t have to wait as long to see these sunflowers in action, though.  Airlight Energy and the IBM plan to donate a HCPVT system each to two deserving communities by 2016. Communities can apply online in 2015 with winners to be announced in December of that year.

With such high tech and high efficiency, I guess that the zombies and trolls of fossil fuel power are quivering in their tracks.

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