Inspired by old telescope technology and high-efficiency solar panels used in space, a small research team at the University of Arizona (UA) has developed a new “telescope solar panel” that doubles efficiency compared to standard photovoltaics. At the foundation of the design is a dish-shaped mirror (similar to those widely used in concentrated solar power plants), which increases the intensity of sunlight. The device concentrates photons (light particles), making more of them available for conversion into electricity in the solar cells.
From the dish-shaped mirror, the sunlight reaches a glass ball, which distributes it evenly onto a solar array.
“By using mirrors to focus on small but super-efficient photovoltaic cells, we have the potential to make twice as much electricity as even the best photovoltaic panels,” said Roger Angel, Regents’ Professor of Astronomy and Optical Sciences and director of the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab.
The team has also been working on ways to track the sun`s trajectory to maximize power output throughout the day: “The tracker is fully automated,” Blake Coughenour, a graduate student at 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.”
7 by 7 miles of the trackers and solar panels are capable of generating 10GW during sunshine hours, which throughout the day would be equivalent to the amount generated at the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant – the biggest nuclear power plant in the country. Angel’s team is continuously working to improve the technology, and recent grants from the Department of Energy totaling $1.5 million will extend their research to solar thermal as well.
Image Credit: Blake Coughenour