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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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By DockScience on 3/28/2012 5:29:45 PM , Rating: 3
looks like a WHOLE lot of silicon there.
And much of it dark.

So let me guess, we double the power but we increase costs by 10x.

RE: big
By bobsmith1492 on 3/28/2012 5:32:50 PM , Rating: 2
Article says the cost of the silicon isn't a big factor anymore.

RE: big
By Solandri on 3/28/2012 5:34:02 PM , Rating: 1
From the article:
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.

In other words, for the same surface area of silicon, they are getting 2-20x the power output.

I'm guessing that's averaged throughout the day (at noon, nothing beats a flat panel pointed straight up).

RE: big
By mmp121 on 3/28/2012 6:05:37 PM , Rating: 2
The true test would be compare the same surface area of one of these, vs. a properly aligned traditional fixed panel and see which can produce more electricity in a full day cycle.

Then of course, you would have to test it again during summer / winter / spring & fall to ensure it is truly more power efficient. Otherwise, its all smoke and mirrors.

RE: big
By JediJeb on 3/29/2012 1:58:51 PM , Rating: 2
I think this is where these new designs become better than a traditional flat panel, they do not need to be realigned for time of day or time of year. To get the max from a traditional flat panel year round you would need to tweak the alignment every day or at least every week as the sun changes it's angle of incidence.

RE: big
By boobo on 3/28/2012 6:28:34 PM , Rating: 5
I'm not sure it's talking about the same surface area of silicon. It could also be talking about the surface area covered by the base of the tower.

RE: big
By fic2 on 3/28/2012 7:05:32 PM , Rating: 3
Jesus. Doesn't anyone comprehend what they read anymore?

same base area.

Not the same surface area but he same land foot print - i.e. base area - as stated in the article.

The same way a building has more surface area than the parking lot it was built on.

Seems like a stacked comparison
By 91TTZ on 3/28/2012 5:48:05 PM , Rating: 3
It sounds like they're comparing these vertical solar panels to a single flat solar panel laying down that can't move.

However in the real world flat solar panels are usually capable of changing their angle so they're perpendicular to the sun. Why did this comparison avoid that little fact?

RE: Seems like a stacked comparison
By Strunf on 3/29/2012 7:34:20 AM , Rating: 2
Cause then the difference would be much lower or even worst, for instance when the sun is at highest point this 3D panel would probably be less efficient than a flat one that keeps pointing to the sun!

RE: Seems like a stacked comparison
By JediJeb on 3/29/2012 2:00:49 PM , Rating: 2
But if you use a regular flat panel that covers the same area of the ground(base area mentioned in article) then these will always win out.

RE: Seems like a stacked comparison
By Trisped on 3/29/2012 4:00:01 PM , Rating: 2
They are using miss direction to make it sound like they received valuable results.

If they were to cover the roof in their towers, the benefits from low angle light would only be realized by the line of towers closest to the sun, all others would be in shade of the towers between them and the sun.

Also, if the panels were on a pivot which kept them pointed directly at the sun then the towers would again lose their advantage. Since the sun does not move very fast, the amount of power lost pivoting the panels would not be much compared to the amount gained by the pivot and the money saved with the less expensive components.

Very Interesting
By Plazmid19 on 3/28/2012 3:28:17 PM , Rating: 3
Makes sense in terms of overall surface area. You are just moving upward, akin to a skyscraper. I'm hoping this is preliminary and exploratory.
Nature, if you view the solar panels as leaves, has an elegant solution in several aspects.
Each leaf is multi-layered and a little translucent. If you were able to do this within each solar cell, such that you had the same 3D effect, but at the molecular level, that would lead to more efficient solar cells without the size.
You could also create smaller solar cell arrays that wouldn't cast shadows, at least not shadows that effected the energy. A semi-translucent solar cell would seem effective in this case. You could, in theory, have a small solar cell sandwich that would be comprised of possibly thousands of energy converting layers.
Very cool observation from the MIT team.

RE: Very Interesting
By chrnochime on 3/28/2012 4:17:39 PM , Rating: 2
I guess the cell stacks are suitably spaced from each other and not further apart than current 2D panels, since further apart= less cell stack / panel and that without the correct distance between the stacks, the lower level cells would not get the same amount of sun exposure as the upper ones. Hmmm...

RE: Very Interesting
By JediJeb on 3/29/2012 2:05:06 PM , Rating: 2
Interesting idea. What if you also design the layers to transmit only the wavelengths that their particular cells do not efficiently transform into energy to a layer below it that can use that wavelength to high efficiency. First layer is optimized for UV and passes visible and IR through it, second is optimized for visible and passes IR through and third layer is optimized for IR conversion. Not sure it can be done, but if it could then you would have a better conversion across the entire spectrum with less waste of the light that hits the panel.

new tech.
By aeronb on 3/28/2012 6:57:00 PM , Rating: 2
From the title of the article, I was hoping the technology would be something similar to Intel's 3D transistors, increasing efficiency per square inch.

RE: new tech.
By runutz on 3/28/2012 10:34:03 PM , Rating: 2
A small quibble, but I believe you meant "Cubic" inch versus "square" inch, IE taking advantage of height.

And yet, while this is great that in the same FOOTPRINT of the device they can get more energy, in practical use you won't be able to maximize this as one would need to deal with the shadow of a "3d" Solar tower in close proximity.

RE: new tech.
By 0ldman on 3/30/2012 8:46:19 AM , Rating: 2
In this case it is square inch of surface area. Cubic inch is volume, and I don't think the spaces between the panels are actually doing the work.

By Arsynic on 3/28/2012 2:58:49 PM , Rating: 2
However, unless they were really tiny, I don't really think cars or houses would look attractive with these solar "bulbs" protruding from the top.

By bupkus on 3/28/2012 3:00:02 PM , Rating: 2
So, say the existing flat panels are flexible. Are they saying that folding them as origami models would vastly improve the density of power output? That's it? I had the impression that multiple depths were in a sense similar to multi-layer DVD disks where different frequencies would be trapped and absorbed at different depths.

Test Input
By Starcub on 3/29/2012 12:49:49 PM , Rating: 2
To do this, the team used a computer algorithm to test a series of possible designs under different conditions regarding weather, seasons and latitudes.

I wounder how they came up with the 3D structures that were used as inputs to their model. It seems to me that they could probably use a computer to figure out what the optimum 3D shapes/arrangements are as well. Perhaps there is something more efficient than the accordion shape they came up with. Then again, they would also need to consider the cost of manufacturing and installing these structures as well, if they were to truly be useful.

Easier to install on buildings ?
By Sharro on 3/29/2012 1:08:51 PM , Rating: 2
When I looked at the design it looked simpler to install them vertically on a building (on it's "sunny" side) or not ?

unhealthy logic
By jakemoon on 3/29/2012 1:31:44 PM , Rating: 2
This is the same half baked logic that resulted in the Solyndra debacle. Solyndra was essentially a 3D formulation rather then flat. They wrapped thin film into a tube and added reflectors. So three (pi. 3.14) times the thin film plus reflectors to be less efficent then flat thin film.

Alos, anyone that claims 20 times the power is possible is lying. i.e.: take a poor cell that works at 10% efficiency. multiply that by 20 your now saying you can get 200% efficiency out of the same sunlight... ridiculous... and not science.

By mythirdij on 3/30/2012 8:42:24 AM , Rating: 2
It seems that solar panels are starting to resemble trees. Not a bad idea.

Are we suddenly incapable of aiming our flat panels?
By bh192012 on 3/28/12, Rating: -1
By michaelklachko on 3/28/2012 4:37:03 PM , Rating: 1
They can produce 2-20 times more power. While traditional panels are 0-20% efficient.

By Solandri on 3/28/2012 5:31:58 PM , Rating: 2
Single panels are about 15%-20% efficient when pointed directly at the sun. Once you factor in angle of the sun, they range from 0%-20% efficient.

The 20x they're talking about is without tracking. i.e. at sunrise when a traditional panel is pointing straight up and getting almost no sunlight, this 3D arrangement is about 20x more efficient.

By bh192012 on 3/29/2012 1:08:30 PM , Rating: 1
That's my point. I can take a worse case scenario and point the panels at the floor, then flip them on their side and make a claim that putting solar panels on their side is 20000% more effecient. It's a BS spin job, and I'm tired of this kind of reporting. 3D panels are more expensive by far than regular panels. Pointing the regular panels towards the sun destroys the 3D panels advantage, and it's not some kind of tech from the future.

By bebimbap on 3/28/2012 6:09:21 PM , Rating: 5
"with the same base area"

it's not that is 20x more efficient in producing the energy per square inch of panel, it's 20x more efficient per land area that the devices cover.

By prophet001 on 3/28/2012 6:24:01 PM , Rating: 2
They said that they produce 20x the power output. Not 20x the power efficiency. This is an entirely different claim. They could in fact have the same power efficiency and still increase the power output.

By geekfool on 3/28/2012 6:19:30 PM , Rating: 4
You miss the point. Flat solar panels were *never* a good idea. Trees have been doing solar energy for a billion years, and look around, how many flat trees do you see?

Moving to a 3-dimensional configuration was an obvious next step.

By Dorkyman on 3/28/2012 8:00:58 PM , Rating: 2
I don't think that's a good comparison. The claim is only that the new arrangement can gather much more power than a single panel occupying just the floor area of the structure. So if floor space is the constraint, then this makes sense.

But take all those stacked panels and spread them out on the floor, you will get MUCH more output than the stacked array.

By TSS on 3/29/2012 9:04:39 AM , Rating: 2
I think you missed the point as well. You're not going to spread out panels on things like a roof. There's a finite space in which to put panels.

Floor space is *always* the constraint when talking something flat. Why do you think multistory buildings where made....

By 91TTZ on 3/29/2012 11:23:44 AM , Rating: 2
The problem with that idea is that a flat panel on a hinge can be made to always face the sun, negating any benefit of this 3d panel.

By 91TTZ on 3/29/2012 11:08:29 AM , Rating: 1
It's you who are completely missing the point.

The fact is that flat solar panels can be tilted so they're perpendicular to the sun's rays, while in this biased test they just left them laying flat.

Also, trees grow and spread to compete against other trees. Sure, if solar panels grew then it would be beneficial for your solar panel to be on a higher stand so that it captures all the light and leaves competitors in the shadows to wither away.

However, solar panels don't grow like trees. They're placed by people who plan things out. A farm of flat solar panels that can be tilted is pretty close to an optimal configuration. A farm of these 3d solar panels wouldn't be a good idea because they'd cast shadows which would make nearby 3d panels generate less electricity.

By geekfool on 3/30/2012 4:53:33 AM , Rating: 2
The fact is that flat solar panels can be tilted so they're perpendicular to the sun's rays, while in this biased test they just left them laying flat.

That's beside the point. Even when optimally aligned, the ratio of collector surface-area to cross-sectional area consumed at ground/base level is going to be orders of magnitude poorer with a two-dimensional setup compared to a three-dimensional setup.

That's the benefit of a three-dimensional design; the surface area of your collector is substantially more than the footprint of the device at ground/base level. That's important for those "people who plan things out" because often they will be working in situations where they are space-constrained along the horizontal axes (such as on the roof of a building) and the only available way to attain a greater surface-area is to build up and out. Like a tree.

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