Two of the three 3D structures  (Source: MIT)
The improvement in power output comes from the vertical surfaces of the 3D structures

MIT researchers have created new solar designs that stray away from the traditional panel-like shape and instead resemble 3D towers.

Jeffrey Grossman, study leader and Carl Richard Soderberg Career Development Associate Professor of Power Engineering at MIT, along with a team of MIT researchers, constructed 3D solar designs that are vertical and capable of increasing the solar power generated from a certain area.

To do this, the team used a computer algorithm to test a series of possible designs under different conditions regarding weather, seasons and latitudes. Once the predictions were computer generated, the team built three separate models and tested them on the MIT laboratory roof. The structures ranged from simple cube shapes to more complex accordion-type shapes.

The results showed that the 3D structures provided power output from double to 20 times that of traditional flat solar panels with the same base area. According to MIT, the improvement in power output comes from the vertical surfaces of the 3D structures that are capable of collecting more sunlight during winters, mornings and evenings when the sun is closer to the horizon.

"I think this concept could become an important part of the future of photovoltaics," said Grossman. "Even 10 years ago, this idea wouldn't have been economically justified because the modules cost so much, [but now] the cost for silicon cells is a fraction of the total cost, a trend that will continue downward in the near future."

However, the cells themselves are a small portion of the overall costs. About 65 percent of the cost of photovoltaic energy consists of installation, permission for land use, etc. It was also discovered that more complex 3D shapes provided 10 to 15 percent more power output, and these shapes would be more expensive and difficult to manufacture. But MIT researchers say that any 3D shapes would be an improvement over traditional flat solar panels.

The MIT team will now work on studying how a group of the 3D solar structures would work together in different situations where the towers would cast shadows on the others during different times of the day.

Sources: MIT, Earth Techling

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