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Solar Energy The new SunCatcher solar dish costs lends itself to low-cost, high-speed commercial manufacture.

Published on July 19th, 2009 | by Tina Casey

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New SunCatcher Solar Dish Spells Relief for Rust Belt

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July 19th, 2009 by  

The new SunCatcher solar dish costs lends itself to low-cost, high-speed commercial manufacture.The new SunCatcher solar power dishes at a Sandia National Laboratories test facility in New Mexico could bring new life to the ailing automobile industry.  Made of stamped sheet metal, the SunCatcher can be produced in a process similar to that of car manufacturing.  That’s no accident: Stirling Energy Systems designed the system to take advantage of the tried-and-true automotive supply chain in the U.S.  With Michigan already pitching itself as the new home of the solar industry, the SunCatcher could help bring new life – and a new sustainable purpose – to the Rust Belt and other manufacturing regions.

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SunCatcher Solar Power Collectors

The four new SunCatcher dishes on display at Sandia form a concentrating solar-thermal power system developed by Tessera Solar and Stirling Energy Systems with support from Sandia.  Mirrors in the dish focus the sun’s rays on a receiver, concentrating the solar energy by a factor of 1,300.  The receiver then sends heat to a Stirling engine, which runs on changes in the pressure of hydrogen in a sealed chamber.  As it heats and cools, the hydrogen drives a piston.  Though the system sounds simple, it represents well over 100 years of development.  The basic principle of the Stirling engine was established by patent in 1816, and in 1978 the Ford Motor Company began developing a solar-powered Stirling engine.  Stirling Energy Systems was formed in 1996 to carry the work forward with Tessera Solar.

2nd-Generation SunCatcher Improves Manufacturability

As reported in Popular Mechanics last year, the science behind the SunCatcher’s high rate of efficiency is established.  A test conducted in early 2009 resulted in a new world record for solar efficiency of 31.25%.  The next hurdle is a logistical one: designing a system that can be reproduced on a mass scale, with quick turnaround, at low cost.  On the cost end, mirror-based systems like SunCatcher already have an advantage over silicon, which has proved vulnerable to price spikes.  The design was tweaked further to reduce the use of steel, cut the number of mirrors by half, and reduce the number of engine parts by 60%.  Maintenance and installation are two other cost factors that give SunCatcher an edge.

SunCatcher – Made in the U.S.A.

If all goes well, commercial production could begin in 2010.  The SunCatcher is not alone, either.  New concentrating solar power systems are already in the works, for example in Arizona, and new technological improvements are cutting the cost of collecting dishes.  The day can’t come soon enough for Michigan and other manufacturing regions, especially if other solar companies start looking at car factories for inspiration.  Given Stirling’s estimate that over 90% of the SunCatcher’s components will be manufactured in the U.S., it looks like the automobile industry isn’t dying after all.  It’s just waiting to be recycled.

Image: Courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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  • Uncle B

    Keeping planned obsolescence, annual “improvements” poor quality, ill fitting parts, inconsistent manufacturing process,labor disputes, drunkenness on the job, drugs on the job, labor disputes, racial problems, medical claims follies, injury claims follies,recall follies, coffee breaks, you know, all the foibles of American manufacturing out of the process will keep government and Union officials slaving day and night in highly paid positions in air conditioned offices, and suburban homes to match!( Private schools for upper-crust offspring too!) Even the “Cadillac” craze might be revived, if we can pry their fat under exercised asses out of BMW’s and the like! China and India are about to kick ass! Our fat indolent lazy over fed, soft American ass! We must get vulture capitalism to acquire these rigs at better than half the cost to the government from Asia, and let Michiganites go goddamned fishing on welfare checks! They had their chance at bat. struck out! were given another chance, gave us the “Volt!” copy of the BYD from China plus a big heavy sheet mental body, not like the “Aptura” which is what we need, and now they want to fvck up our last chance, the Solar Energy thing! I say no! subcontract it out to China and India, and give the change to Michiganites in food stamps!

  • Uncle B

    Keeping planned obsolescence, annual “improvements” poor quality, ill fitting parts, inconsistent manufacturing process,labor disputes, drunkenness on the job, drugs on the job, labor disputes, racial problems, medical claims follies, injury claims follies,recall follies, coffee breaks, you know, all the foibles of American manufacturing out of the process will keep government and Union officials slaving day and night in highly paid positions in air conditioned offices, and suburban homes to match!( Private schools for upper-crust offspring too!) Even the “Cadillac” craze might be revived, if we can pry their fat under exercised asses out of BMW’s and the like! China and India are about to kick ass! Our fat indolent lazy over fed, soft American ass! We must get vulture capitalism to acquire these rigs at better than half the cost to the government from Asia, and let Michiganites go goddamned fishing on welfare checks! They had their chance at bat. struck out! were given another chance, gave us the “Volt!” copy of the BYD from China plus a big heavy sheet mental body, not like the “Aptura” which is what we need, and now they want to fvck up our last chance, the Solar Energy thing! I say no! subcontract it out to China and India, and give the change to Michiganites in food stamps!

  • Robert Lynch

    I am a Certified Energy Engineer, and a 16 year member of the Society of Automotive Engineers.

    That said, it is urgent that such developments as the Suncatcher come to market immediately. I remember the

    big dishes that we had early in the TV reception stage. A dish no larger than those will not need permits, and should pass all Zoning and HOA rulings.

    I want one now! I am proposing small Residential windmills and solor dishes. Keep the cost down, and

    benifits up. Bob Lynch.

    Current Holder of EPA and CARB certification for converting dirty heavy-duty diesel engines to run on Clean Natural Gas.

  • Robert Lynch

    I am a Certified Energy Engineer, and a 16 year member of the Society of Automotive Engineers.

    That said, it is urgent that such developments as the Suncatcher come to market immediately. I remember the

    big dishes that we had early in the TV reception stage. A dish no larger than those will not need permits, and should pass all Zoning and HOA rulings.

    I want one now! I am proposing small Residential windmills and solor dishes. Keep the cost down, and

    benifits up. Bob Lynch.

    Current Holder of EPA and CARB certification for converting dirty heavy-duty diesel engines to run on Clean Natural Gas.

  • http://lifealternate.com/ Solar For Hot Water

    By the looks of them, they will be probably shipped in some sort of kit form and assembled on site. No doubt a token plant in the USA but the bulk of components from the obvious cheaper places.

  • http://lifealternate.com/ Solar For Hot Water

    By the looks of them, they will be probably shipped in some sort of kit form and assembled on site. No doubt a token plant in the USA but the bulk of components from the obvious cheaper places.

  • chrisp

    Let’s just hope all the stamping dies and steel do not come from Asia as is very popular now in the “American” automotive business.

    However I doubt they will be making these sun catchers at a rate of one every 60secs like cars. But it would be a great way to stimulate the economy.

    Where are the sun catchers assembled? It’s seems silly to put them together in MI and ship them all the way to AZ.

  • chrisp

    Let’s just hope all the stamping dies and steel do not come from Asia as is very popular now in the “American” automotive business.

    However I doubt they will be making these sun catchers at a rate of one every 60secs like cars. But it would be a great way to stimulate the economy.

    Where are the sun catchers assembled? It’s seems silly to put them together in MI and ship them all the way to AZ.

  • chrisp

    Let’s just hope all the stamping dies and steel do not come from Asia as is very popular now in the “American” automotive business.

    However I doubt they will be making these sun catchers at a rate of one every 60secs like cars. But it would be a great way to stimulate the economy.

    Where are the sun catchers assembled? It’s seems silly to put them together in MI and ship them all the way to AZ.

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