IBM attempts to harness the power of two thousand suns

Can a new project aimed at concentrating sunlight bring solar power back in fashion?

Considering it's Earth Day, it's unsurprising that collaborative research has been announced which focuses on trying to get the solar industry back on track -- by creating systems able to harness the power of thousands of suns.

A three-year, $2.4 million grant from the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation has been awarded to IBM Research, Airlight Energy, ETH Zurich and the Interstate University of Applied Sciences Buchs NTB to research and develop an economical "High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal" (HCPVT) system.

The project aims to create a system capable of concentrating solar radiation 2,000 times and converting 80 percent of the incoming radiation into useful energy, far beyond today's solar panels that can only convert a margin of energy captured.

The prototype features a large, mirrored parabolic dish attached to a sun tracking system. Sunlight reflects off the mirrors into several microchannel-liquid cooled receivers with triple junction photovoltaic chips that can convert 200-250 watts over a typical day. Each 1x1cm chip is mounted on pipe liquid coolants that absorb heat and draw it away. According to IBM, "the coolant maintains the chips almost at the same temperature for a solar concentration of 2,000 times and can keep them at safe temperatures up to a solar concentration of 5,000 times."

"We plan to use triple-junction photovoltaic cells on a micro-channel cooled module which can directly convert more than 30 percent of collected solar radiation into electrical energy and allow for the efficient recovery of an additional 50 percent waste heat," said Bruno Michel, manager, advanced thermal packaging at IBM Research.

The scientists hope that their research will result in a HCPVT system that is more cost-effective than models currently on the market, and believe that they can achieve a cost per aperture area below $250 per square meter -- three times lower than the cost of current systems.

In addition, it is expected that the system will be able to provide desalinated water and cool air in sunny, remote locations.

Read More: IBM Labs

Image credit: IBM Labs

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