Solar-thermal flat-panels that generate electric power

May 01, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- High-performance nanotech materials arrayed on a flat panel platform demonstrated seven to eight times higher efficiency than previous solar thermoelectric generators, opening up solar-thermal electric power conversion to a broad range of residential and industrial uses, a team of researchers from Boston College and MIT report in the journal Nature Materials.

Two technologies have dominated efforts to harness the power of the sun's . Photovoltaics convert sunlight into electric current, while solar-thermal uses sunlight to heat water and produce thermal energy. Photovoltaic cells have been deployed widely as flat panels, while solar-thermal power generation employs sunlight-absorbing surfaces feasible in residential and large-scale industrial settings.

Because of limited material properties, solar thermal devices have heretofore failed to economically generate enough . The team's introduced two innovations: a better light-absorbing surface through enhanced nanostructured thermoelectric materials, which was then placed within an energy-trapping, vacuum-sealed . Combined, both measures added enhanced electricity-generating capacity to solar-thermal power technology, said Boston College Professor of Physics Zhifeng Ren, a co-author of the paper.

"We have developed a flat panel that is a hybrid capable of generating hot water and electricity in the same system," said Ren. "The ability to generate electricity by improving existing technology at minimal cost makes this type of power generation self-sustaining from a cost standpoint."

Using nanotechnology engineering methods, the team combined high-performance thermoelectric materials and spectrally-selective solar absorbers in a vacuum-sealed chamber to boost , according to the co-authors, which include MIT's Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering Gang Chen, Boston College and MIT graduate students and researchers at GMZ Energy, a Massachusetts clean energy research company co-founded by Ren and Chen.

The findings open up a promising new approach that has the potential to achieve cost-effective conversion of solar energy into electricity, an advance that should impact the rapidly expanding residential and industrial clean energy markets, according to Ren.

"Existing solar-thermal technologies do a good job generating hot water. For the new product, this will produce both hot water and electricity," said Ren. "Because of the new ability to generate valuable electricity, the system promises to give users a quicker payback on their investment. This new technology can shorten the payback time by one third."

Explore further: Scientists come closer to the industrial synthesis of a material harder than diamond

More information: www.nature.com/nmat/index.html

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User comments : 7

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Feldagast
2.8 / 5 (4) May 01, 2011
That's nice, when can we buy them and how much more do they cost than traditional panels?
axemaster
5 / 5 (2) May 01, 2011
Uh, ok. But what is the efficiency? You say it is better, but what are the actual numbers?
Vendicar_Decarian
3.4 / 5 (5) May 01, 2011
Another article without numbers.

Twice nothing is still nothing.
Bob_B
5 / 5 (1) May 01, 2011
Can these panels withstand pine-cone bombardments?
Noodle_Naut
1 / 5 (4) May 01, 2011
Defiantly short on details. It does not even say what physics effect is being used for the electrical generation. Are we talking advanced peltiers, nanofiber bending, some odd piezo setup, anti-lasers, some exotic photovoltaic for infrared, microscopic antennas...what?
Noodle_Naut
1.7 / 5 (6) May 01, 2011
Love the pine-cone jab Bob-B. Maybe those bad ol' pine-cones can pull their weight and generate some energy with some piezo panels ;) Sounds like you need a net or some tempered glass. How about smart panels that can dodge the pine-cones or swing a shield up. Oh I've got it you need a pine-cone acquisition and tracking system with SDI pulsed laser canon...yeah that is the ticket, then all you have is a bit of ash to clean up ;) Oh...don't tell the neighbors. When they come running out wondering what was that flash and explosion you can just shrug and hid the dustpan ;)
zuggerjack
not rated yet May 02, 2011
Sounds like an excellent innovation, but how does it stack up against space solar power as described in the book I read called Sunstroke by David Kagan involving satellites that power-beam solar energy to Earth in the form of microwaves? Japan demonstrated back in 1981 with their Project Minix subsatellite experiment that power-beaming solar energy from Earth orbit via microwaves is a highly feasible alternative energy source and can be made economical, especially considering the inherent hazards of nuclear energy.

But perhaps in the interim solar-thermal power generation can help wean us from fossil fuels and nuclear.