Solar Panels Go 3D

//

Solar cells on a house or building are basically flat panels arranged to face the sun. But recently a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology asked why it had to be that way. In the process, they found that cube- or tower-shaped solar cells might be a better design, especially in locations far north of the equator.

NEWS: Smart Meter or Government Spy?

Using a computer algorithm, the researchers, led by Jeffrey Grossman, associate professor of power engineering, looked at a huge variety of configurations and tested them at different latitudes. Then they built three of those designs, putting the panels on the roof of an MIT building.

DNEWS VIDEO: GREEN ENERGY

They found that the designs produced 20 times more power than fixed flat panels that took up the same amount of space. The reason is actually simple: If you have a combination of vertical and horizontal panels, the former will pick up more energy in the mornings and evenings, when the sun's rays hit them more directly. A horizontal or angled panel will tend to get the biggest power outputs at noon.

The difference is most pronounced at high latitudes — say, northern Alaska or Tierra del Fuego. In those areas, the sun never gets very far above the horizon for a big part of the year.

Motorized solar panels can track the sun, of course, but those motors eat up the energy being harvested. Tower-like configurations don't have motors and don't need to track the sun. A towering shape also avoids some of the problem of shadowing, since the blocked panels are offset by those still exposed to the sun.

NEWS: Solar Panels That Float, Rotate

One drawback is the cost of the panel structures themselves. Initially it will likely be higher, as making a dimpled cube shape is more complicated than a flat panel. But it may be that a simple cube is nearly as good.

The team will be testing that aspect next, seeing which shapes or configurations work best. One idea is an accordion-shaped design that could fold up for shipping.

via: MIT

Credit: MIT / Allegra Boverman