A new solar panel that mimics Mother Nature

Scientists at MIT and RWTH Achen University in Germany developed a computer program that discovered that a solar plant's mirrors actually reduce the efficiency of the sunlight they collect.

One of the biggest solar power plants in the world is located right outside Seville in Spain. The giant 330 feet tall power-generating tower is surrounded by more than 600 mirrors—each the size of half a tennis court.

Scientists at MIT and RWTH Achen University in Germany have developed a computer program that discovered that the mirrors on this plant, and other plants, actually cast a shadow at each other that reduce the efficiency of the sunlight they collect. Led by MIT’s Alexander Mitsos and Corey Noone, the team of researchers has found the design that can make concentrated solar power arrays more effective—by mimicking the shape of a sunflower.

A sunflower’s floret is oriented toward the next floret at a 137.5-degree angle. This angle is otherwise called the Golden Angle due to its optimal efficiency. The shape makes sure that as little shadow as possible will interrupt its neighbor. They had computer models experiment by turning the mirrors at the plant in Seville into a Golden Angle degree, and found that they could reduce land space with 20 percent by mimicking the sunflower’s spiral pattern.

The space of the solar plant contributes to about a third of the direct cost of the plant, therefore the mirror’s spacing between each other and the tower is crucial. Using the spiral pattern of the sunflower can reduce not just the space, but also the cost of material, installation, operation and maintenance.

The plant in Seville creates enough electricity to power 6000 homes, and is one out of a handful of concentrated solar power plants around the world. Proponents of solar power say it is possible to create enough electricity to power the entire United States—as long as we have enough land and sunlight.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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