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Your scouter isn't reading wrong -- that's one powerful parabolic dish

To celebrate Earth Day, one of the tech industry's oldest and most savvy firms -- International Business Machines, Inc. (IBM) -- announced a joint project with top Swiss research university Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETH Zürich) and Airlight Energy Holdings SA, a Swiss-based solar firm, to develop a better parabolic dish for concentrated solar power.

I. Trio Aims For Super-Cheap Dish Solar Power

Fueled by a $2.4M USD grant from the Swiss Commission for Technology, the trio is chasing lofty goals -- 80 percent conversion efficiency and the ability to concentrate sunlight to intensities up to 2,000 times the natural levels.  

The major upside to this kind of solar power -- High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal (HCPVT) – is that it cuts down on the surface space of the photovoltaics (and hence the amount of pricey rare earth elements needed).  Stumbling blocks include the inherent complexity of designing the concentrating mechanics and the maintenance concerns.

The prototype device is a multi-facet parabolic dish, whose mirrors track the sun.  The mirrors beam the concentrated sunlight onto multiple microchannel-cooled 1 centimeter x 1 centimeter chips, each of which can produce between 200 and 250 watts on a sunny day.  100+ of the chips are combined to produce around 25 kilowatts of power per dish.   Professor Aldo Steinfeld of ETH Zürich is using advanced ray tracing simulations to craft the control algorithms to precisely precision the mirrors for maximum harvest.

IBM dish
IBM is aiming for costs under 10 cents per kilowatt-hour with its news dish system.
[Image Source: Airlight/IBM]

But the microchannels are where the greatest "magic" happens.  Versus the passive air cooling of some previous concentrating solar systems, the microfluidic system is just tens of micrometers away from the chips, allowing them to stay virtually unheated at 2,000 times sunlight, according to the project team.  The system can concentrate up to 5,000 time sunlight without melting.

II. Microfluidics Research is Paying Off for IBM

This is the second major project where IBM and ETH Zürich are teaming up to use the new microfluidic system, which was originally designed at the Egypt Nanotechnology Research Center.  The pair is also working to build a supercomputer -- dubbed Aquasar -- based on the new cooling tech.

IBM Microchannels
The super-concentrated solar power is enabled by IBM's microfluidic channel technology.
[Image Source: IBM]

The researchers hope to deploy the system at a cost of under $250 USD per square meter, and at a cost-per-kilowatt-hour of <$0.10 USD/kWh.  That would be pretty incredible, given that coal power is currently $0.05-0.10 USD/kWh in many regions.

A key to cutting the cost is that only the chips/controllers/and motors are manufactured offsite.  Airlight CTO Andrea Pedretti describes, "The design of the system is elegantly simple.  We replace expensive steel and glass with low cost concrete and simple pressurized metalized foils."

III. Clean Drinking Water to Boot

Better yet, the team hopes to use the cooling system to provide fresh drinking water.  The water heats to 90ºC in the microfluidics, vaporizing.  It then passes through a series of porous membranes that block salt, leaving only fresh water.

Generating drinking water would reduce the capacity of the system, but researchers estimate the system could produce 30-40 liters of drinkable water per meter, per day, while still producing 2 kWh of power per day per meter (roughly a 25 percent efficiency).  Thus roughly two meters of dishes could produce enough water daily to sustain one person.

drinking water`
A 2 sq. meter system produces enough clean drinking water a day for one person to live on.
[Image Source: National Geographic]

The thermal system also can be hooked up to an absorption chiller, which replaces energy-intensive compression chillers (which often use ozone-depleting fluids).  The chiller uses silica gel to achieve a unique cooling thermal cycle.

The combination of cleaning drinking water, cooling, and power production -- three crucial needs of desert regions -- make this solar system a seemingly promising one.  With prototypes currently under testing in Switzerland, the team hopes to soon see it deployed to regions like the southern Europe, Africa, Arabic peninsula, the southwestern part of the United States, South America, and Australia.  The team also expects its lightweight, cost-effective nature will make it a promising solution for tropical island tourist destinations.

Sources: IBM/ETH Zürich/Airlight [Press Release], AP on Yahoo! News

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or invest in MSRs instead
By mjv.theory on 4/22/2013 1:47:23 PM , Rating: 5
I think the Sahara, or any desert would be great, cos there's no dust, no clouds, no night and they're right next to population centres, so no transmission losses....oops, have I think I may have just thought of some possible problems.

Alternatively, develop Molten Salt Reactor technology and have cheap, limitless, 24 hour, scalable electricity close to population centres.

Actually, there's no need to develop the tech, because China is already doing it.

RE: or invest in MSRs instead
By Anoxanmore on 4/22/2013 1:51:03 PM , Rating: 3
We could perfect nuclear fusion like we should have been for the past 30 yrs.

RE: or invest in MSRs instead
By mjv.theory on 4/22/2013 3:56:44 PM , Rating: 1
ITER is a waste of $20+Billion. Tokamaks will NEVER work, the physics of fusion energised plasma confinement by magnetic fields is obviously flawed - obvious to all but the heavily funded. NIF is just as silly and, so far, doesn't even work.
Both these approaches are unlikely to result in net energy, and even if they did they are so huge and so cost inefficient that they would never be cost effective to operate.

Eric Lerner has perhaps some chance with the dense plasma focus, but even then the engineering challenges are still substantial even if the physics works.

MSRs are cheap, "easy", scalable and proven - it's just a matter of refining the tech on an industrial scale.

RE: or invest in MSRs instead
By Freakie on 4/23/2013 2:30:21 AM , Rating: 2
I don't think it's a waste. True, it won't be our main source of power for a long time, but the research has to start somewhere. And looking to the future of the human race, fusion is pretty much the only way to go for us to be able to go beyond our solar system in reasonable amounts of time in reasonable means of transportation. It is going to take incredible amounts of energy to do some of the crazier sci-fi things ;) Fusion is a need, not a want. It's just that it is not the most immediate need, but I would never categorize it as a waste at all.

RE: or invest in MSRs instead
By DT_Reader on 4/23/2013 10:54:29 AM , Rating: 2
Nuclear Fusion has been only 20 years away for the past 60 years.

RE: or invest in MSRs instead
By SilentSin on 4/23/2013 12:08:36 PM , Rating: 2
Those are exactly my thoughts for every solar farm story I've read since I heard about MSRs (like this If the area is good enough for a farm of basic flat panels, how would you not consider something that provides more consistent power output to be superior? I'm glad they are at least finally looking at advancing different ways of concentrating the energy since passive absorption is one of the least effective ways to capture solar. Far more interesting processes can occur at the higher energy/temperature differentials where concentrated systems operate.

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