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Scientists attempt to harness power of 2,000 suns

White Sands National Monument

A group of pioneering scientists has announced a collaboration to develop an affordable PV system capable of concentrating, on average, the power of 2,000 suns, with an efficiency that can collect 80 percent of the incoming radiation and convert it to useful energy.

A three-year $2.4 million grant from the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation has been awarded to scientists at IBM Research, Airlight Energy, ETH Zurich and Interstate University of Applied Sciences Buchs NTB to research and develop an economical High Concentration PV Thermal (HCPVT) system.

“We plan to use triple-junction photovoltaic cells on a microchannel cooled module which can directly convert more than 30 percent of collected solar radiation into electrical energy and allow for the efficient recovery of waste heat above 50 percent,” said Bruno Michel, manager, advanced thermal packaging at IBM Research.

“We believe that we can achieve this with a very practical design that is made of innovative concrete trackers, primary optics composed of inexpensive pneumatic mirrors and structures made of concrete – it’s frugal innovation, but builds on decades of experience in lightweight and high strength concrete elements used for building bridges.”

Current PV systems only collect electrical energy and then dissipate the thermal energy to the atmosphere. With the HCPVT packaging approach, scientists aim to both eliminate the overheating problems of solar chips while also repurposing the energy for thermal water desalination and cool air.

To provide fresh water IBM scientists and engineers are utilising a technology they developed for water-cooled supercomputers. With both the Aquasar and SuperMUC supercomputers water is used to absorb heat from the processor chips, which is then used to provide space heating for the facilities.

In the HCPVT system, instead of heating a building, the 90 degree Celsius water will pass through a porous membrane distillation system where it is then vapourised and desalinated. Scientists say that such a system could provide 30-40 litres of drinkable water per square meter of receiver area per day.

Scientists envision the HCPVT system providing sustainable energy and fresh water to locations around the world including Southern Europe, Africa, The Arabic peninsula, south western USA, south America, and Australia. A prototype of the HCPVT is currently being tested at the IBM Research lab in Zurich, Switzerland. Several prototypes of the HCPVT system will be built up in Biasca and Rüschlikon, Switzerland as part of this collaboration.