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Published on August 9th, 2012 | by James Ayre


New Solar Power Design Inspired by Telescope Could Produce Twice the Energy

August 9th, 2012 by  

Researchers have designed a new solar power module that uses a curved mirror to focus sunlight onto a 5-inch glass ball that then spreads the light evenly across a solar panel, leading to twice the power output of traditional solar panels when combined with high-efficiency solar cells. The design was inspired by telescope technology and the high-efficiency solar cells used by space agencies.


The module also tracks the sun and rotates with it to increase its efficiency. The whole module is mounted on a steel 10-ft by 10-ft rotating frame that moves with the sun.

“The tracker is fully automated,” Blake Coughenour, a graduate student in the UA’s College of Optical Sciences, explained. “The system wakes itself up in the morning and turns to the East. It knows where the sun will rise even while it’s still below the horizon. It tracks the sun’s path during the day all the way to sunset, then parks itself for the night.”

One of the most interesting parts of the system is the mirror. The researchers came up with a dish-shaped mirror design that works very well for concentrating sunlight specifically for photovoltaics, as opposed to a solar thermal system.

“Most mirrors used in solar power plants are used for thermal generation by focusing light onto a long pipe used to heat water into steam. This requires the mirrors to be shaped like a cylinder. What we have learned here at the Mirror Lab is how to bend the glass to high accuracy so as to focus to a point or a line.”

The panels are created out of solar cells that are usually only used in spacecraft. These cells capture a wider range of the solar spectrum than regular cells. The ball lens is coated to maximize transparency for the suns rays. When put together with the mirrors, this system works very well to concentrate light on the the solar cells, but it also concentrates a bunch of heat. So the researchers designed a cooling system consisting of fans and a radiator that keeps the array within 36 degrees of the outdoor temperature.

Since the heat generated is itself a valuable resource the researchers are also “working on a way to use the mirrors to create an eco-friendly furnace that works like a toaster oven to burn a mold into a flat sheet of glass.”

From tests done by the researchers, a tracker featuring two mirrors generates enough energy to power two homes, but they hope to place eight mirrors on each module.

They say that “an array of sun trackers on an area measuring about seven by seven miles (11 x 11 km) would generate 10 GW of power during sunshine hours – as much as a big nuclear power plant. This technology has a lot going for it that makes it super promising.”

“Unlike conventional power plants that use steam to power turbines, Angel’s photovoltaic prototype uses no water, making it especially suitable for desert regions,” the University of Arizona reports. “The materials are cheap to produce and by concentrating sunlight with mirrors the plant’s footprint is smaller than that of PV panel-based plants.”

Source: University of Arizona
Image Credits: Blake Coughenour

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • Superscientis01

    i have designed a tree……..which has increased the efficiency of solar panels per unit area 80% . thus collecting more amount of sunlight from a limited area for larger duration. contact at superscientist01@gmail.com for more details. 

  • Robert Sitton

    This looks like a solar oven.

  • Anne

    It seems like a rather expensive setup, only suitable for regions with a high percentage of direct sunlight. It also wasn’t clear to me where exactly the innovation is compared to existing CPV systems.

    • Bob_Wallace

      High percentage of direct sunlight and limited real estate.

      KISS rules almost all the time.  Harder to find anything simpler than a bunch of fixed mount solar panels.  Point some east and some west to extend the solar day.  I’d bet the tracker eats more money than the power lost in E/W facing fixed mounting.

      Fun math for someone:  Cost out a solar field in which half the panels face the rising Sun, half the setting Sun.  Calculate the return.

      Sure, you loose about 20% over south-facing panels, but you get to sell power into earlier and later parts of the day.  Based on what we’ve seen in Germany standard mount solar is chomping the middle out of mid-day prices, leaving two daily price peaks on each side of the south-solar day.

      • sola

        my roof has exactly this setup. a south-east side and a south-west side. I am planning to place 5 kwh of panels on each side.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Good for you. But that’s a lot of panels. Charging an EV? Huge AC load? Growing “tomatoes” in your spare room?

          (You don’t need to answer that last one…. ;o)

          I’m running my house on 1.2 kW and have far more power than I need most days. I’m not cooking or heating water with electricity and I have no AC load, but there’s a lot of distance between 1.2 and 10. Even if the 10 is really an 8.

          I really wish someone would release a small hybrid 4wd truck. A Volt with a bed.

          The 16kW battery pack of the Volt would give me excellent backup storage. If I could get double use (transportation and deep backup) from a hybrid and have the ability to drive without a charge, it would be a sweet thang. * *I could do a lot of my present driving with my non-curtailed solar.

    • dynamo.joe

      “5-inch glass ball that then spreads the light evenly across a solar panel,”

      That’s the innovative bit.

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