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Buildings Wake Forest University research team invents device to collect sunlight and heat energy

Published on April 4th, 2011 | by Tina Casey


New Solar Thermal System Sucks More Energy from the Sun

April 4th, 2011 by  

Wake Forest University research team invents device to collect sunlight and heat energyA team from Wake Forest University is about to field-test a new home solar energy system that collects power not only from visible sunlight but from the sun’s heat, as well. The new solar-thermal system is  still in the development stages but it has the potential to deliver a lot of renewable energy for the buck, so it could join a growing inventory of small scale distributed solar energy systems that turn homes and other buildings into micro-generators.

One Roof, Two Kinds of Solar Energy

Wake Forest’s system consists of clear, thin tubes with a spray-on photovoltaic backing that converts visible sunlight to electricity. The backing also super-heats a  a specially dyed oil that flows through the tubes. The heated oil could be integrated with a conventional geothermal heat pump, which would normally collect heat energy from the ground.

Some Advantages of the New Solar Thermal System

According to the Wake Forest team, the new system collects energy that is unavilable to conventional rooftop solar systems, which only collect about 25 percent of the energy available from the sun (they don’t collect infrared light – the longest wavelengths, which are invisible to human eyes). Conventional solar technology also functions best only at peak daylight hours, while the Wake Forest system has the potential to deliver energy throughout the day. In urban areas particularly, the new system could take advantage of the “heat island” effect, sucking energy emanating from buildings and paved surfaces.

Another Option for Building-Integrated Solar

The Wake Forest team is also confident that the system could be engineered to look like roofing tiles, putting it squarely into an aesthetically pleasing trend of incorporating solar energy collectors into roofs, exterior walls, and even windows. It also fits in with President Obama’s Better Buildings Initiative, which seeks to transform our nation’s trunkload of energy-sucking buildings into more efficient energy consumers – and even more ambitiously, to take advantage of the energy-harvesting potential in builtover real estate.

Image: Drinking straws uploaded to wikimedia by de:Benutzer:Jaques.

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About the Author

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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