A Look At The Solar Sunflower
Here's an interesting solar innovation out of Switzerland. An excerpt:
High on a hill was a lonely sunflower. Not a normal sunflower, mind you; that would hardly be very notable. This sunflower is a solar sunflower that combines both photovoltaic solar power and concentrated solar thermal power in one neat, aesthetic package that has a massive total efficiency of around 80 percent.
The Solar Sunflower, a Swiss invention developed by Airlight Energy, Dsolar (a subsidiary of Airlight), and IBM Research in Zurich, uses something called HCPVT to generate electricity and hot water from solar power. HCPVT is a clumsy acronym that stands for "highly efficient concentrated photovoltaic/thermal." In short, it has reflectors that concentrate the sun—"to about 5,000 suns," Gianluca Ambrosetti, Airlight's head of research told me—and then some highly efficient photovoltaic cells that are capable of converting that concentrated solar energy into electricity, without melting in the process. Airlight/Dsolar are behind the Sunflower's reflectors and superstructure, and the photovoltaics are provided by IBM.
The two constituent technologies of the Solar Sunflower—concentrated solar thermal power and photovoltaic solar power—are both very well known and understood at this point, and not at all exciting. What's special about the Sunflower, however, is that it combines both of the technologies together in a novel fashion to attain much higher total efficiency. Bear with me, as this will take a little bit of explaining.
The reflectors are simply slightly curved, mirrored panels. Airlight has tried a variety of different reflector materials, from glass to mylar, but it looks like they have finally settled on aluminium foil, which isn't prohibitively expensive and has very high reflectance. Aluminium foil does need additional material to protect it from the elements, though, as it's very flimsy. The Sunflower has six "petals," each consisting of six reflectors. At the focal point of the 36 reflectors there are six collectors, one for each block of six reflectors.
The collectors are where most of the magic occurs. To begin with, each collector has an array of gallium-arsenide (GaAs) photovoltaic cells. GaAs is much more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity (38 percent in this case, versus about 20 percent for silicon), but it's much, much more expensive. With the Sunflower, though, space is at a premium: the sunlight is only focused on a very small region, so you need to use the absolute best cells available. The GaAs array in each collector only measures a few square centimetres, and yet it can produce about 2 kilowatts of electricity (so, one Sunflower generates about 12kW of electricity in total).