MIT researchers have created an origami-like solar structure that is much more efficient than current flat panels.

The three-dimensional solar structure could, at least in principle, absorb a lot more light and generate more power than a flat panel containing the same area footprint. The hope is that all unused light which has been reflected off one panel would be captured by other panels. Panels of this type would be most ideal in circumstances with limited space.

"This was a fully 'bio-inspired' idea," said researcher Jeffrey Grossman, a theoretical physicist at MIT. "I was hiking up at Lake Tahoe in California and noticing the shapes of trees, and wondering, 'Why do they have a given shape over another?'"

Research into photovoltaic panels has largely kept them flat to prevent any sort of shadow effect. Shadowing could heavily diminish the amount of light panels harvest. In addition, 2-D panels are easier to install on rooftops, and they are also better suited for large-scale fabrication techniques.

Scientists used a "genetic algorithm" to evolve solar panels in a computer simulation thus determining the optimal 3-D shape for harvesting the largest amount of light. It created random combinations of flat, triangular, double-sided panels and then analyzed them in response to the sun's movement across the sky. The best ones were then "mated" to create "offspring." The process was repeated for millions of generations to see what might evolve.


With a 1,000 square-foot area, flat solar panels generate about 50 kilowatt hours daily. In comparison, the newly discovered 3-D structure researchers came up with could harvest more than 60 kilowatt hours each day with a structure about 6 feet high. A structure 33 feet high could harvest 120 kilowatt hours daily.

This is not the first time we've seen 3-D solar, but the first time it's been this big. Previous research has explored 3-D solar but on a nano-based level.

"I originally thought that such structures would only be useful in situations where area is at a premium — for example, rooftops," Grossman said. "Lately, though, we have been exploring more and more directions for ideas that may make 3-D structures more appealing than flat panels, even when area is not limited."

Of course, these jagged clusters would be a bit unwieldy to use so the scientists created a simplified structure that generates about the same amount of energy.


One huge advantage of 3-D solar panels is that they require no moving parts. The panels generate an even flow of power throughout the day. In order to achieve this with flat panels they must be arranged on a system that tracks the movement of the sun, "which is a big bummer, since you really don't want any moving parts sitting on your rooftop," Grossman said. "Anything that moves can break easily with time and needs more maintenance."

"I'm excited about the fact that such a seemingly simple idea could help lower the cost of solar power," Grossman added. The researchers are now teaming up with experimentalists to build prototypes of their computer-generated designs.

Source: Live Science

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