Harnessing sunlight on the cheap
MIT student project aims to develop cost-efficient solar power
A team of students, led by mechanical engineering graduate student Spencer Ahrens, has spent the last few months assembling a prototype for a concentrating solar power system they think could revolutionize the field. It's a 12-foot-square mirrored dish capable of concentrating sunlight by a factor of 1,000, built from simple, inexpensive industrial materials selected for price, durability and ease of assembly rather than for optimum performance.
Rather than aiming for a smooth parabolic surface that would bring the sunlight to a perfect focus, the dish is being made with 10-inch-wide by 12-foot-long strips of relatively low-cost, lightweight bathroom-type mirror glass. The frame is assembled from cheap aluminum tubing, with holes drilled in precise locations using a simple jig for alignment, so that the struts can be assembled into a framework that passively snaps into just the right parabolic curvature.
The control mechanism, which allows the dish to track the sun automatically across the sky, is also remarkably simple--photocells mounted on each side of the dish with opaque baffles, which cast a shadow on the cell when it drifts out of alignment, connect to a simple circuit that turns on small electric motors to push the dish back into the right position.
"The technical challenge here is to make it simple," Ahrens explains.