IBM is rethinking the solar panel.
A team of scientists led by the tech company has been awarded a three year $2.4 million grant to develop a solar power generator that’s capable of concentrating the power of 2,000 suns and converting 80 percent of incoming radiation into energy.
IBM Research will work collaboratively with Airlight Energy, ETH Zurich, and Interstate University of Applied Sciences Buchs NTB to develop and test prototypes of the High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal (HCPVT) system. One model already exists at the IBM Research lab in Zurich, and more will be built in Switzerland’s Biasca and Rüschlikon. According to the scientists, the HCPVT system can be built at less than $250 per square meter, about a third of the cost of comparable systems.
The HCPVT system is made up of a large parabolic dish that uses many mirror facets to reflect the sun’s rays onto receivers laden with hundreds of small high-efficiency PV chips to generate 25 kilowatts of power. Measuring a square centimeter each, the triple-junction photovoltaic cells can convert an average of 200-250 watts over an eight-hour day in a region where the sun is strong.
In addition to renewable energy, such a solar system can also provide drinking water and air conditioning using water byproduct. Similar to cooling systems for supercomputers, the HCPVT system passes 90-degree Celsius water through a porous membrane distillation system, a process that’s said to be 10 times more effective than passive air cooling. After the water is vaporized and desalinated, it can provide 30 to 40 liters of drinkable water per square meter. A larger installation, according to the researchers, could provide enough water for a small town. This cooling system could also provide air conditioning with a thermal-driven adsorption chiller, which unlike traditional compression chillers, doesn’t have an impact on the ozone layer.
While prototypes will be tested in Switzerland, the scientists envision the HCPVT system being used in Southern Europe, Africa, the Arabic peninsula, the American southwest, South America, and Australia. Furthermore, they see the opportunity for remote locations to utilize such a system for entirely infrastructure-independent energy and fresh water.