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New solar technology utilizes sun's heat

August 25, 2010 7:10:07 PM PDT
We know the sun can be tapped to produce electricity, but the solar panels that make that happen could soon change. A team of engineers at Stanford University has devised a new way to make large-scale solar panels generate more power by utilizing the heat as well as rays from the sun.

"The light and the heat can be used synergistically, and that's something that hasn't been shown before in solar systems, so that's really the breakthrough here," Nick Melosh, a Stanford materials science professor, said.

It is done by applying a thin layer of the metal cesium onto the silicon wafer.

With the kind of hot days the Bay Area has seen recently, it's easy to understand how a car surface can get really, really hot. Solar collectors do the same thing; they collect and dissipate that heat, but it is wasted energy because that heat can actually be harnessed to create more electricity.

Melosh and his colleagues believe they can boost output by one-third by using extreme heat to speed up the electrons inside solar panels. The heat ideally has to be above 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

"We actually like that it gets very, very hot when you focus down the light, just like if you hold a magnifying glass, the very tip of that gets very, very hot, and that makes our device more efficient," Melosh said.

But since it does not get that hot on a rooftop, the target will be large solar farms in the desert where devices called concentrators can be used like magnifying glasses to raise the temperature.

Two more years of research lie ahead, but the project has already caught the interest of venture capitalists.

The new technology is not expected to replace current, single family solar installations.

Five years later, the system at one Los Gatos home has not yet paid for itself. But the owners embrace solar energy.

"There's always going to be better technology, and you just have to decide when is the right time for you, jump in and do it then. There's no perfect time for everybody, everyone has the right time," Sueling Cho said.


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