By Mark Ollig
As your humble contributor writes this column, there is still abundant snow on the ground, and the calendar says we are nearing the end of April.
Hopefully, when you read this, the snow will be a memory, as the temperatures become warmer.
The warmth we receive from the bright sunshine has yours truly wondering where we are these days with utilizing the sun to provide us with energy.
I was surprised to learn, even though our planet is some 92 million miles away from the sun, we are still receiving about 85 trillion kilowatts of constant energy from it. This kind of energy would be comparable to the energy realized from burning 1,150 billion tons of coal in one year.
Looking back to 1954, Bell Telephone Laboratories developed the first workable solar cell using a silicon wafer, which converted the sun’s energy into electricity via photovoltaic processes.
Today, nearly 60 years later, comes some exciting news from the clever folks at IBM.
With a grant from the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation, the scientists and researchers at IBM Research, Airlight Energy, and other organizations, are working together on developing a High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal system (HCPVT).
Instead of using traditional solar panels to generate energy, IBM is building a futuristic- looking, large parabolic dish-like solar-receiving concentrator, strongly resembling one of those huge Very Large Array (VLA) satellite dish receivers seen out in the remote plains of New Mexico.
“The design of the system is elegantly simple,” said Andrea Pedretti, chief technology officer of Airlight Energy.
“We replace expensive steel and glass with low-cost concrete and simple pressurized metalized foils,” he said.
This solar parabolic dish will use a micro-channel liquid-cooled photovoltaic thermal receiver to keep the component chips from overheating.
Its parabolic curvature will be covered with many individual, rounded mirrors.
The solar-collecting dish will use a tracking system to control and maintain an optimal position in relation to the sun.
The sun’s rays will reflect off the dish’s mirrors and onto a collection of micro-channel liquid-cooled receivers embedded with triple-junction photovoltaic components.
The HCPVT system will be capable of concentrating solar radiation 2,000 times, while using 80 percent of it for useful energy purposes.
IBM said this system would convert total collected solar energy at a cost three times lower than similar solar energy collection systems.
The HCPVT will be using small one-by-one centimeter component chips, which will provide power at a rate of around 200 - 250 watts per chip, on an average sunny, eight-hour day.
The intense heat generated onto the chip components inside the solar parabolic dish will require them to be water-cooled.
IBM decided to use the Aquasar hot-water component cooling method it uses in its SuperMUC supercomputer.
It is integrated inside the supercomputer to cool its components.
Aquasar circulates water using low pumping power at temperatures of around 140 degrees Fahrenheit through a number of small microchannels directly over the supercomputer’s processing chip components.
This same Aquasar system will also be used for cooling the component chips in the new solar energy-collector parabolic dish.
Without this cooling, the component chips inside the parabolic dish would melt.
By means of a thermal driven adsorption chiller (a device which converts heat into cooling), the HCPVT system will be able to provide air conditioning.
In addition, fresh water will be created as a byproduct in this system.
Instead of being discarded, the side-heated water collected from the system will be used for creating drinkable water.
This side-heated water will be used to heat salty water passing through a distillation system. From there, it will be vaporized and purified.
Each day, the distillation system will generate an estimated 16 gallons of drinkable water per 10.76 square feet of the solar dish’s receiver area.
It is thought a large, solar energy collector parabolic dish tracking array system would produce enough drinkable water to supply the needs for a town.
Scientists foresee HCPVT systems bringing sustainable energy, and fresh drinkable water to remote locations around the world, including the southwestern United States.
IBM says it would only need 2 percent of the land area in the Sahara Desert to supply the world’s energy needs using an array of these powerful, solar photovoltaic energy concentrators.
Will this become the future means of providing a cost-effective and viable system for harnessing energy from the sun, while also supplying drinkable water?
The first High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal prototype system is now being tested at the IBM Research laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland.
To see what IBM’s impressively large, solar energy-collector parabolic dish will look like, go to http://tinyurl.com/c5q4qnf.