Solar power is all good and clean but we know it’s capable of much more.
IBM and its collaborators are trying to use cooling technology from supercomputers to harvest solar energy more efficiently, and produce purified water at the same time.
This is High Concentration Photovoltaic Thermal (HCPVT) and the current prototype consists of a large parabolic dish made up of several mirrors, connected to a sun-tracking system.
The sunlight hitting the dish is reflected and focused onto hundreds of photovoltaic chips, all fitted to microchannel-liquid cooled receivers. Each chip measures just 1 cm x 1 cm and can generates an average of 200–250 watts over an eight-hour period on a sunny day, at an efficiency of about 30 percent.
IBM adapted the cooling technology to create a system that continually pumps water just a few micrometers away from each chip through micro-structured layers.
IBM claims that this method is 10 times more effective than air-cooling, and maintains a stable temperature over the chips to prevent them from melting.
The heated waste water could be diverted to a desalination system, where it vaporizes and purifies salt water. The researchers estimate this could produce 30-40 liters of clean water per square meter of the receiver area in a day.
Alternatively, the scientists would like to direct the heated water to an adsorption chiller, which could produce air conditioning for a nearby area.
By combining electrical and thermal collection units into a single setup, the research team predicts the HCPVT system would be able to convert 80 percent of the captured solar energy into a usable form.
Another advantage to the HCPVT system is that it would cost considerably less by using lightweight concrete and metal foils instead of glass and steel, hence lowering the costs for assembly and maintenance, which could lead to more countries or regions implementing the system.
Currently, the prototype HCPVT is being tested at an IBM research lab in Zurich. Additional prototypes are planned.