Researchers from Boston College and MIT have improved the efficiency of solar-thermal flat panels by seven to eight times, opening up the possibility of expanding the technology’s economic potential.

At the moment, solar-thermal flat panels take sunlight to heat water and generate thermal energy. They don’t produce much electric power.

However, scientists from MIT and Boston University reported in a paper published this month that they were able to generate a sizable amount of electricity by adding two innovations. First, they used nanostructured thermoelectric materials to create a better light-absorbing surface. Second, they placed the material within an energy-trapping, vacuum-sealed flat panel.

The two changes helped improve the efficiency of electricity production in the solar-thermal panel by seven to eight times.

“We have developed a flat panel that is a hybrid capable of generating hot water and electricity in the same system,” said Boston College physics professor Zhifeng Ren, a co-author of the paper. “The ability to generate electricity by improving existing technology at minimal cost makes this type of power generation self-sustaining from a cost standpoint.”

The study, "High-performance flat-panel solar thermoelectric generators with high thermal concentration," was reported in the journal Nature Materials.

See also:

Solar panel efficiency