Solar cubes

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The only way is up ... new direction for solar?

Tens of thousands of grey nomads have embraced the solar age, harvesting the energy of the sun to allow them to both use power and to silently stay in bush locations for extended periods. But it still isn’t a perfect solution.

There are cloudy days, caravans and motorhomes get parked in the shade, and the panels laying flat on the rig roof just aren’t delivering the amount of power needed to keep the a/c, washing machine, freezer, and media centre running full blast 24/7. Well, while scientists may still be a way off delivering limitless free power to grey nomads, they are making startling progress on improving solar panel performance.

For years, research has focused on improving the efficiency of photovoltaic cells, but the boffins have realised they have been ignoring the elephant on the solar panel … the way in which the cells are arranged. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have built cubes or towers that extend the solar cells upwards in three dimensional configurations … with stunning results.

Using both computer modelling and outdoor testing, the new structures have boosted power output by up to 20 times that of fixed flat panels with the same base area. While solar panels placed flat on a rooftop are most effective at harnessing solar energy when the sun is close to directly overhead, they quickly lose their efficiency as the angle of the sun’s rays hitting the panel increases – during the mornings, evenings, and in the less sunny months.

According to the findings published in the Energy and Environmental Science journal, this is exactly when the 3D modules created by the MIT team provided the biggest boosts in power output. By going vertical and collecting more sunlight when the sun is closer to the horizon, the vertical units were able to generate a more uniform output over different times and seasons. In their rooftop tests, the MIT team studied both simpler cube modules as well as more complex accordion-like shapes that could be shipped flat.

So far, only individual 3-D modules have been tested, and the next step is to study a collection of such towers, accounting for the shadows that one tower would cast on others. Given that these 3-D shapes will deliver a particular advantage when used in places where space is limited, the question is: ‘Just how much extra power producing potential could a cluster of them deliver to the roof of a caravan or motorhome?’

While it may add to wind resistance on the road, the possibilities offered by the new innovation could be endless.

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