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IBM developing solar energy system with 80% efficiency

A new collaborative research project could develop a solar power system that concentrates sunlight 2000 times and converts 80 percent of incoming sunlight to energy.

The Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation awarded a $2.4 million grant to scientists from computer giant IBM Research, solar company Airlight Energy, technology university ETH Zurich and the Interstate University of Applied Sciences Buchs NTB.

Over three years, the team will work on making an affordable High Concentration Photovoltaic Thermal (HCPVT) system – a parabolic dish covered in mirrors that tracks the sun.

Credit: IBM Research

Credit: IBM Research

Sunlight will heat photovoltaic chips that are able to pass on the sun’s heat 10 times more efficiently than normal. The chips will still be able to function up to a solar concentration of 5,000 times.

“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.

The researchers say this innovative system will convert 80 percent of incoming sunlight to electricity, far more than today’s standard solar energy systems.

“The design of the system is elegantly simple,” said Andrea Pedretti, chief technology officer at Airlight Energy. “We replace expensive steel and glass with low cost concrete and simple pressurized metalized foils. The small high-tech components, in particular the microchannel coolers and the molds, can be manufactured in Switzerland with the remaining construction and assembly done in the region of the installation.”

“This leads to a win-win situation where the system is cost competitive and jobs are created in both regions.”

Because of the system’s high concentration, the researchers predict they will be able to generate energy at one third of the cost of current systems, bringing the levelized cost of energy to below 10 cents per kWh.

The system will also be able to desalinate water and provide air conditioning. You can learn more about the HCPVT project here.


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