May 9, 2008

Simple, Cheap Solar Power from MIT

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.

5 comments:

Tania said...

This is an interesting article. I've been looking for simple and inexpensive ways to install solar power at home. I think the factor that most deters most people from alternative energy like this is the inconvenience and price. Even being able to conveniently install small pieces like a solar cell phone charger or patio lighting would transform the way that people think about solar energy. Soon . . .

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