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April 22, 2013

IBM solar concentrator generates electricity and enough heat for desalination or cooling

IBM and its partners used a solar concentrator dish to shine light on a thin array of highly efficient triple-junction solar cells, which produce electricity from sunlight. By concentrating the light 2,000 times onto hundreds of one-centimeter-square cells, IBM projects, a full-scale concentrator could provide 25 kilowatts of power.

In this design, the engineers hope to both boost the output of the solar cells and make use of the heat produced by the concentrator. Borrowing its liquid-cooling technology for servers, IBM built a cooling system with pipes only a few microns off the photovoltaic cells to circulate water and carry away the heat. More than 50 percent of the waste heat is recovered. “Instead of just throwing away the heat, we’re using the waste heat for processes such as desalination or absorption cooling,” says Bruno Michel, manager, advanced thermal packaging at IBM Research.

"We plan to use triple-junction photovoltaic cells on a micro-channel cooled module which can directly convert more than 30 percent of collected solar radiation into electrical energy and allow for the efficient recovery of an additional 50 percent waste heat," said Bruno Michel, manager, advanced thermal packaging at IBM Research. It could convert 80 percent of the incoming radiation into useful energy.






Researchers expect they can keep the cost down with a tracking system made out of concrete rather than metal. Instead of mirrored glass on the concentrator dish, they plan to use metal foils. They project the cost to be 10 cents per kilowatt-hour in desert regions that have the appropriate sunlight, such as the Sahara in northern Africa.



The prototype HCPVT system uses a large parabolic dish, made from a multitude of mirror facets, which are attached to a sun tracking system. The tracking system positions the dish at the best angle to capture the sun's rays, which then reflect off the mirrors onto several microchannel-liquid cooled receivers with triple junction photovoltaic chips -- each 1x1 centimeter chip can convert 200-250 watts, on average, over a typical eight hour day in a sunny region.

The entire receiver combines hundreds of chips and provides 25 kilowatts of electrical power. The photovoltaic chips are mounted on micro-structured layers that pipe liquid coolants within a few tens of micrometers off the chip to absorb the heat and draw it away 10 times more effective than with passive air cooling.

The coolant maintains the chips almost at the same temperature for a solar concentration of 2,000 times and can keep them at safe temperatures up to a solar concentration of 5,000 times.

The direct cooling solution with very small pumping power is inspired by the hierarchical branched blood supply system of the human body and has been already tested by IBM scientists in high performance computers, including Aquasar. An initial demonstrator of the multi-chip receiver was developed in a previous collaboration between IBM and the Egypt Nanotechnology Research Center.

"We plan to use triple-junction photovoltaic cells on a micro-channel cooled module which can directly convert more than 30 percent of collected solar radiation into electrical energy and allow for the efficient recovery of an additional 50 percent waste heat," 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 lightweight and high strength concrete, which is used in bridges, and primary optics composed of inexpensive pneumatic mirrors -- it's frugal innovation, but builds on decades of experience in microtechnology.


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