MIT researchers have discovered a way to maximize the efficiency of solar panels, effectively producing up to 20 times the solar output of traditional flat panels with the same surface area. Through the construction of vertical towers, scientists were able to create 3 different modules that are far more efficient in tracking solar movement and adjusting to changing seasons.
Unlike traditional flat panels that are designed to harness energy when the sun is at its peak, the different permutations were able to track the sun when it was closer to the horizon; consequently, they collected more sunlight and generated a more consistent output of energy over time. Even variations in weather and altering seasons did not deter these 3D modules, as they were still able to produce double the energy of flat panels despite unfavorable conditions.
The team relied on computer modeling to construct and analyze the performance of a multitude of prototypes. The first modeling demonstrated that complex shapes, like a cube with every face dimpled inward, would offer a 10 to 15 percent increase in power when compared to a simple cube. Researchers encountered the issue, however, of this complex structure being too difficult to 3D print.
Scientists determined that the next best option would be to create a simpler cube model, as well as intricate accordion-like shapes that had the benefit of being able to be shipped flat and unfolded on site. This design was the tallest of the modules and intended to be used in parking lots as charging stations for electric vehicles. These structures not only provide a more consistent flow of electricity, but their design allows for multiple towers to be built together, making them far more space efficient than singular flat panels.
While the modules do cost more than flat panels, scientists predict that the vast increase in energy output greatly outweighs the price tag. As head scientist Jeffrey Grossman discussed, the dramatic fall in cost of solar cells in recent years is ultimately what made this project possible.
“Even 10 years ago, this idea wouldn’t have been economically justified because the modules cost so much,” he said. “But now, the cost for silicon cells is a fraction of the total cost, a trend that will continue downward in the near future.”
While the team must conduct further research to determine the optimum tower placement to maximize sunlight collection, the progress made in this study is a promising step towards the transition to renewable energy.
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