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The dish is composed of a set of 10 inch by 12 foot curved mirrors, like the one seen here. The students easily mount the mirrors to the aluminum framework using simple hardware like washers and zip ties.  (Source: MIT)

The mirrors incredible power makes short work of a beam of wood, disintegrating it in flames and smoke. The focal point can melt steel.  (Source: MIT)
New solar dish from MIT concentrates sunlight intensely enough to melt steel

The solar industry is booming.  With waves of investment and grants, the solar power industry is for the first time becoming a serious business.  New power plants will soon be pumping power out to consumers, while other firms market to sell panels directly to the consumer, providing them with a more direct means of experiencing solar energy.

There are many forms of solar power technology.  Today the most dominant is photo-voltaics, which comprise the traditional solar panels that come to mind when one thinks of solar power.  However, there are other promising ways of capturing the sun's energy that are merely less developed.

Among these is a parabolic collector.  A parabolic collector consists of an array of mirrors focused on a singular point, which they heat to a high temperature.  By placing water or another liquid at the collector, energy can be stored in the form of a phase transformation, and later harvested through a turbine generator.

However, parabolic collectors are still a relatively new field of research.  Their true potential remains relatively unknown.  A glimpse of it was provided by a research team at MIT, which developed a new parabolic collector design, which will blow away current solar power designs in terms of efficiency.

The MIT team believes that their lightweight, inexpensive device holds the promise of revolutionizing the power industry and providing solar power to even remote regions.

The key piece is the 12-foot dish, which the team assembled in several weeks.  The design is exceedingly simple and inexpensive.  The frame is composed of aluminum tubing and mirrors are attached to it.

The results are staggering -- the completed mirror focuses enough solar energy at its focal point to melt solid steel.  The energy of typical sunlight is concentrated by a factor of 1,000.  This was showcased during a demonstration, in which a team member held up a board, which instantly and violently combusted, when brought within range of the focal point.

By directing the dish at a more practical target -- water piped through black tubing -- steam can be flash created, offering instant means of producing energy or providing heating. 

Spencer Ahrens, who just received his master's in mechanical engineering from MIT, was among the designers of the dish.  He and his fellow team members are serious about marketing it, and leveraging its cheap cost and easy production.  They have founded a company named RawSolar.  They say their design is easily mass producible and that they hope to be pumping out 1,000 of dishes in years to come.

The new dishes would return their costs in a mere couple years, unlike standard photo-voltaic installations which can take 10 years or more to return their costs.  This improvement is critical to providing practical economic justification for adoption.

The dish is based partly on components invented and patented by inventor Doug Wood.  He was so pleased with the team's work that he signed over rights to the components to the team.  He elates, "This is actually the most efficient solar collector in existence, and it was just completed.  They really have simplified this and made it user-friendly, so anybody can build it."

Wood says one of the keys to the success of the project is the smaller size.  Dishes are affected by the same weight dynamics that effect living organisms.  Much as large living organisms would need an inordinate amount of weight support and thus are not favored, larger dish designs fall short in that they require an exponentially greater amount of infrastructure.  For example, a dish the size of the RawSolar team's design costs only a third of what a larger dish would cost.

MIT Sloan School of Management lecturer David Pelly gave a guiding hand to the students and thinks the economic upsides of the technology are impressive.  He states, "I've looked for years at a variety of solar approaches, and this is the cheapest I've seen. And the key thing in scaling it globally is that all of the materials are inexpensive and accessible anywhere in the world.  I've looked all over for solar technology that could scale without subsidies. Almost nothing I've looked at has that potential. This does."

The ability to build unsubsidized, profitable, and easy to manufacture solar power will truly be something amazing.  This should be an exciting technology to follow as it is marketed and further developed.

Besides Ahrens, the other students primarily working on the project were Micah Sze (Sloan MBA '08), UC Berkeley graduate and Broad Institute engineer Eva Markiewicz, Olin College student Matt Ritter and MIT materials science student Anna Bershteyn.

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RE: Subject
By Doormat on 6/22/2008 1:41:23 AM , Rating: 2
Well #1 is the standard solar power question. Problem #3 is easy - you just angle the dish away from the direction of the hail, wind, etc.

#2 is an excellent problem - its probably the biggest problem with this type of solar concentrator. Yea it can concentrate a ton of heat onto one point, however the problem then is how do you mount whatever device you want at that point to do something with that heat.

You cant really put a fluid tube like a traditional solar thermal concentrator (NV Solar one) because for this device to work it has to be on a two axis tracker, and you'd need a flexible pipe to convey the thermal transfer fluid form one dish to the next to get heated up. Its not practical for it to be flexible and withstand the heat.

What you really have to put out at the focal point is a sterling engine or steam engine, and thats heavy because of the structure needed to hold the device in place.

RE: Subject
By masher2 on 6/22/08, Rating: 0
RE: Subject
By ahdlm on 6/23/2008 2:05:10 PM , Rating: 2
"And how does one do that,"

we seem to manage to keep all of our TV sattelite dishes from blowing away or being beaten to a pulp by hail. why would this be any different?

angling the dish to track the sun is easily automated.

and, why don't you pick the most inappropriate use of the technology as a reason why it won't work. on sailboats? that's akin to suggesting the use of a nuclear reactor on a moped.

RE: Subject
By elpresidente2075 on 6/23/2008 4:53:04 PM , Rating: 2
we seem to manage to keep all of our TV sattelite dishes from blowing away or being beaten to a pulp by hail. why would this be any different?

Because those aren't made of curved glass. A TV satellite dish is made usually of some sort of metal mesh, and often covered with a fiberglass protective coating, neither of which has "Light Reflectivity" as it's purpose. With a system based on mirrors, you need to keep the surfaces relatively clean and damage free for the system to continue working.

That said, just build a dome with one big (flat) glass window on it and just clean that big one. Then just enable the whole structure to rotate into a protective shell-type covering when dangerous weather approaches. Sure, you'll lose a bit of the solar energy, but you could put transparent PV cells in there (the window) to perhaps utilize some of the other wavelengths of light that would otherwise be wasted.

If the problem with a technology is only the fact that it is too expensive to implement efficiently, I am of the opinion that it is only a matter of time until it (or something based on it) becomes a standard and efficient way of doing that which it is designed to do.

RE: Subject
By G2cool on 6/24/2008 12:52:32 PM , Rating: 2
Too easy! Bring in the Chinese to shoot down the weather!

RE: Subject
By ahdlm on 6/23/2008 2:00:48 PM , Rating: 2
plenty of flexible, reinforced steam tubing and articulated pressure / heat rated fittings available if steam is the desired product. the apparatus at the focus doesn't need to be flexible, just where it all needs to rotate in tracking the sun. probably somewhere under the dish.

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