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Published on January 10th, 2017 | by Tina Casey


Will It Or Won’t It? Cutting-Edge Solar Company Races To Meet Grant Deadline

January 10th, 2017 by  

Last August, CleanTechnica took a deep dive into a solar company called Giant Leap Solar when it earned a juicy share in an $11 million Energy Department funding pie to develop a cutting-edge, 3-D-printed concentrating solar technology it calls “Digital Glass.” Now, the company is facing a January 30 deadline to come up with its end of the financing and it’s cutting it awfully close.

This nail-biter is a significant one because the Energy Department has particularly high hopes for Digital Glass. According to the agency, the slim windshield-thin technology could replace heliostats and other large mechanical devices that are typically used in concentrating solar power systems.

Solar Cheaper — Much Cheaper — Than Fossil Fuels

Last summer, CleanTechnica described the Giant Leap approach to photovoltaic technology in terms of the “whispering gallery” effect, in which sound can be transmitted from one side of a chamber to the other without being heard by someone in the middle:

A curved ceiling or roof is a key feature of a whispering gallery. Similarly, the Giant Leap/Livermore CSP concept “steers” light along a curved path by deploying internalized, non-mechanical “mirrors.

You can also get a good rundown on the technology from Giant Leap’s Fundable page.

Many (many) more details are available from the Optical Society’s online journal Optics Express under the title, “Towards doubling solar harvests using wide-angle, broad-band microfluidic beam steering arrays.”

Got all that? For those of you on the go, the basic idea is to deploy optical fluid within a sheet of glass:

Digital Glass incorporates blood-vessel-scale capillaries into transparent sheets, distributing tiny amounts of optical fluid digitally to make embedded mirrors become visible or invisible as needed to redirect sunlight onto super-efficient solar receivers.

According to Giant Leap, the technology could undercut the price of fossil fuels by ten times, while taking up a much smaller area than current solar arrays.

Big Bucks For Innovative Solar Tech

That’s a mighty ambitious plate to fill, but the innovative approach certainly impressed the folks at the Energy Department. Here’s the agency enthusing over the cutting-edge tech:

An observer looking at an MLS [Microfluidic Light Steering] collector would initially see nothing more than a solid transparent slab. However, once light shines onto it, the transparent block of material will jump to life and internal mirrors dynamically form to redirect sunlight.

In addition to providing an award of $1,750,000 for Giant Leap under the SunShot initiative for reducing the cost of solar power, the agency is lending the expertise of its Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to the project.

The lab’s Center for Engineered Materials and Manufacturing is tasked with collaborating on the fabrication side of the technology, which is based on 3-D printing (aka, additive manufacturing).

Livermore has a long history in 3-D printing, but until recently the field was based almost entirely on plastics. New developments in just the past 5 years have opened up the potential for new 3-D printed materials such as those used in Giant Leap’s Digital Glass.

The choice of Livermore to partner with Giant Leap is also interesting because the lab’s primary focus is addressing “critical national security issues.”

It’s A 3-D Printed World, We Just Live In It

Additive manufacturing is the secret sauce that enables Digital Glass and similar technologies to make the leap (so to speak) from prototype to commercial viability.

Livermore makes these additional points about 3-D printing:

Additive manufacturing is already:

  • Accelerating the design-build-test cycle allowing the designer to immediately assess the viability of a product and incorporate design changes as needed.
  • Enabling production of innovative new customized materials and components with radically improved system performance.
  • Reducing cost and time to product for customized components.
  • Reducing long supply chains, manufacturing footprint, and waste associated with production.
  • Reducing the cost, effort, and skill barriers to produce complex parts.

Additive manufacturing dovetails neatly with renewable energy because once the system is in place, the fuel is free and there are no byproducts.

That’s a stark contrast with fossil-burning systems, which depend on a steady stream of input for the life of the operation with all the consequent impacts up and down the supply chain in terms of local environmental and public health issues (and earthquakes, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms).

Racing To The Finish Line

Throw in the global issue of climate change and there’s really no contest between renewables and fossil fuels. However, there is the little matter of money.

Giant Leap’s federal financing is contingent on a match of almost $500,000. The company has gotten part of the way there but that January 30 deadline is looming large.

You can get another look at the company’s pitch on its website, giant-leap-tech.com.

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Image via Giant Leap Technologies

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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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