Solar Cells MIT researchers build low cost, high efficiency 3-D solar power tower

Published on March 27th, 2012 | by Tina Casey


MIT’s Crazy 3-D Solar “Tower of Power”

March 27th, 2012 by  

MIT researchers build low cost, high efficiency 3-D solar power towerTake some ordinary two-dimensional solar panels, stick them together to form a crazy looking three-dimensional solar tower that resembles an abstract sculpture of an accordion, and voila! If you are part of the intrepid team of researchers from MIT who dreamed up that arrangement, you have just boosted the overall efficiency of the solar panels by up to 20 times, and in the process you have caused thousands of solar power researchers around the globe to smack their heads and wonder why they never thought of that.

 3-D solar plays the angles

Actually, at least one company has already begun to exploring the 3-D approach, in a way. Last year CleanTechnica reported on the California firm Solar3D (what else?), which has a prototype under development for a 3-D solar cell. Last week the company announced that its simulations indicate the new cell  “can produce 200% of the power output of conventional solar cells.”

That’s great, but it’s a different approach than the road MIT is taking. From the outside, Solar3D’s solar panels look like – well, like regular solar panels, only a bit thicker; the 3-D effect is on the inside.  The company also hopes to integrate its technology into solar roof tiles, which would be a bit impractical with MIT’s configuration.

MIT’s 3-D solar tower

The MIT team, headed by Associate Professor of Power Engineering Jeffrey Grossman, has come up with a truly 3-D arrangement of solar panels that consists of blocks or towers. The research first came to CleanTechnica’s attention last November with the announcement that the team’s 3-D tower could generate almost as much solar power on a cloudy day as when the sun is shining. Now the team has published a study in the journal Energy and Environmental Science that details its results, based on tests of three different configurations.

Minuses and pluses of 3-D solar power

The researchers note that the tower itself would require more panels to cover the same footprint as an ordinary 2-D configuration, which would make it more expensive. On the positive side, the 3-D arrangement enables the solar tower to capture sunlight at optimal angles throughout much of the day without the need for  a mechanical sun-tracking system. That saves money on installation costs, maintenance and whatever energy is needed to run the system.

According to MIT writer David Chandler, the ability of a 3-D module to function with a relatively uniform power output regardless of the weather or the seasons is also of value in terms of integrating distributed solar energy into the grid.

Cheap solar power, the 3-D way

Assuming that the price of solar cells continues to drop while the expense of a sun tracking system and other components remain relatively stable, the use of extra panels for a 3-D configuration will become more cost effective.

Shipping and installation have a significant effect on the total cost of solar power, and the team also took that into consideration. The concept is for a unit that can be

transported in a flat, compact form that easily expands like the bellows of an accordion once it arrives on site.

Image: 3-D glasses, some rights reserved by julia.chapple.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.


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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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  • Bill_Woods

    “… you have just boosted the overall efficiency of the solar panels by up to 20 times, …”

    That doesn’t seem to be correct, from the press release and the abstract. They’re getting more energy per unit of ground area, because they’re stacking multiple panels over it, but I don’t see that they’re getting more per panel. And the towers will be shading the adjacent area, so I don’t see how an array of them would collect more energy than if the same amount of panels were all laid out on the ground.

    • RobS

      You don’t get more than if they were laid out on the ground you get slightly less but you get more than if flat panels were laid put in the same footprint, it maximises yield from a particular land or roof space. This seems useless because since their invention solar panels have always been the most expensive part of a system so using multiple panels to see a small increase in yield couldn’t be justified. This is starting to see interest because panels are now falling to $0.80 per watt compared to $10 per watt in 2000. For utility scale systems the land now comprises ~60% of new system costs. With la d now being a larger cost than panels it now makes more sense to squeeze more energy out of the land you have.

      • Bob_Wallace

        You don’t necessarily get more yield from a particular amount of space.

        Stacking panels will increase the amount of shadow behind the stack. You’ll have to install stacks further apart than you would have had to with ‘one level’ panels.

        It’s something that people deal with doing multiple rows of ground or flat-roof mounted panels. There’s probably a formula floating around.

        You may get more output during the summer months when the Sun is higher, but you’ll get killed in the spring, fall and, especially, winter.

        The people who are fronting this idea pretty much jumped the gun. From the linked article…

        “A next step is to study a collection of such towers, accounting for the shadows that one tower would cast on others at different times of day. ”

        Why would they tout their concept if they hadn’t checked the shadow problem? That’s something that would only take minutes to determine. It’s no big deal to find out how far a shadow extends during the year. As soon as the shadow starts climbing up the further back tower panels start dropping out and killing system performance.

        Or you’re stuck with the expense of putting an inverter on every panel. And losing power.

        • My guess is that in some locations/applications, the benefits will be useful. But as far as making a dent in other parts of the industry, I’m holding my poker chips. 😀

  • Parth

    “caused thousands of solar power researchers around the globe to smack their heads and wonder why they never thought of that”

    Hmm, I’m not so sure about that. From quickly skimming the paper, this isn’t anything innovative in terms of what solar power researchers do (i.e. higher efficiency materials etc.), but rather an interesting approach by architects to maximize space usage using whatever current solar tech is available.

    Still, a very cool idea…though I wonder how well they’ll perform in the market. The nice thing about flat panels is that you can simply put them on your roof. I’m not sure if you can put these 3d structures on roofs. Also I might be mistaken, but it doesn’t seem like they took into account that you can’t simply put these structures side to side. You need to leave space between the structures as to maximize the amount of light absorbed and I wonder if that makes the 3d structures redundant when you’re trying to cover large areas.

    Nevertheless, glad to see architects getting in the action

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