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New SunCatcher Solar Dish Spells Relief for Rust Belt

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.


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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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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