Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The MIT Solar Revolution

Watch out Silicon Valley! The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is steadily making a name for itself as the solar R&D hub America (and thus the world). In noticing one solar news story after another emerging from the venerable university, I decided to provide a summary of MIT’s recent solar activities in one single post.

Announced this April, the Solar Revolution Project at MIT is research program funded by a $10 million gift by the Chesonis Family Foundation. The Project “will focus on three elements—capture, conversion and storage—that will ultimately make solar power a viable, near-term energy source.”

Here at the solar coaster, we previously discussed an MIT spin-off company called 1366 Technologies, which recently won a solar startup competition. But that is just one of several innovations to have gushed out of the MIT solar R&D pipeline. Let's take a look at a few other solar research and business developments emerging from the venerable Cambridge-based research university:

  • Energy Storage

MIT researchers have developed a new water-splitting (electrolysis) catalyst that is easily prepared from earth-abundant materials (cobalt and phosphorous) and that for the first time, potentially operates in benign conditions, i.e. pH neutral water at room temperature and 1 atm pressure. This finding has massive implications for the development of fuel cells as effective energy storage devices and hence address the intermittency problem that solar power faces. Green Tech blog reports that the Masdar City in Abu Dhabi could be a testing ground for the technology.

Separately, A123 Systems, an MIT spin-off and maker of lithium ion batteries for application to electric vehicles, electric grids (with implications for solar and wind) and consumer electronics have filed a registration statement for a $175 million initial public offering on Nasdaq.

  • Solar Concentrator

Covalent Solar, an MIT spin-off, has unveiled a new solar concentrating technology, which consists of organic dyes painted onto glass or plastic that effectively absorb and re-emit light that so that they are then trapped inside and travels within the plane of the glass/plastic and channeled to the edges where it is capture by strips of PV cells. Some light passes through the concentrator, and is absorbed by lower voltage solar cells underneath. Because such an arrangement does not require tracking or cooling features, it is more cost effective compared to other solar concentrating technologies such as those from Sungri, SolFocus or Energy Innovations. According to this video, early tests have demonstrated that use of Covalent’s technology can yield a 20% boost in performance, but the company is hopeful that this will increase to 40 – 50% with further tweaks. GreentechMedia identifies certain technical challenges that the Covalent team will have to address, such as the relatively short lifespan of the organic dyes

  • Solar Thermal Dish

Another MIT spin-off company, RawSolar, has developed a 10 kW solar thermal dish which the company claims it can produce more cheaply than its competitors “because it will use simple, standard materials and components, which can be ordered from local distributors anywhere in the U.S.,” according to Earth2Tech. The dish can concentrate sunlight1,000 times onto an aluminum tube emerging from the center of the dish, thereby heating water held in the tube to produce steam power.

According to RawSolar’s website, its “patented design flexes flat mirror into precisely the right shape without any special tooling or skilled labor, achieving incredibly high performance, long lifetime, and at a very low cost.” Citing the technology’s inventor, David Wood, MIT News reports that the modest scale of the dishes work to their advantage:

Unlike many technologies where economies of scale dictate large sizes, a smaller dish requires so much less support structure that it ends up costing only a third as much, for a given collecting area.

  • Solar Cooling

Promethean Power Systems, yet another MIT spin-off company, boasts an energy efficient hybrid solar powered thermoelectric refrigerator. The company claims their products, suited for rural off-gird or partially electrified area, can provide cooling at an operating cost that is 66% lower than that of conventional units. The company’s vision is to “develop a complete, stand-alone rural refrigeration system that stimulates businesses, reduces dependency on fossil fuels and increases the quality of life in emerging markets by enabling its users to reliably store food, vaccines and other perishable items.” Green Tech blog provides an excellent write-up.


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marshall said...

The solar revolution is very sirious matter cause the solar is not a joke is pretty big and we dont understand almost everything inside it .
we dont even understand the respiratory system diseases so that is why we need to analogize the solar revolution .

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