Flower powering a community

By | Science & Technology
The Sunflower solar dish technology. Creidt@Airlightenergy.

A recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) claimed that solar energy may account for the world’s largest source of electricity by 2050. Through continued technological advancements and ensuring policy targets are met, the IEA believe that the sun may one day provide 27% of people’s electricity. Companies such as IBM and Airlight Energy are leading the way towards achieving such a prediction through novel, affordable solar energy technology. In conjunction with IBM, Swiss company Airlight Energy, are developing the “Sunflower” – a solar dish designed to provide electricity and clean water to more remote or rural regions.

The 30 foot tall “Sunflower” was originally developed by Bruno Michel of IBM, with Airlight Energy recently licensing the parts needed to begin development. The dish works by using a set of mirrors to channel sunlight onto six of the panels. This process concentrates the sunlight 2000 times and harnesses 80% of the sun’s radiation – enough to supply energy to several homes.  The “Sunflower” keeps the system cool through a microscopic network of water flowing underneath the panels. This means that panels remain at optimal efficiency. The dish also moves to face the sun, in order to receive the optimal amount of radiation. Through a combination of a clever cooling system, an efficient mirror – panel structure and sun – tracking system, the “Sunflower” is able to produce relatively more energy in comparison to similar solar panels.

Whilst long term efficiency makes the “Sunflower” an attractive investment, its initial capital costs are also kept affordable. The mirrors are made of affordablemetallised foil, as opposed to conventional polished glass panels. Costs are made even more affordable through efficient transport. The “Sunflower” is designed to fit in a single shipping container, followed by simple installation. When the dish is launched in 2017, IBM and Airlight believe that manufacturing costs aim to be half to one – third of the costs associated with current incarnations of the technology. Aiming to lower the capital costs of solar energy may make the technology more attractive to buyers according to IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. The “Sunflower’s” novel, clever design supports the IEAs targets.

The Sunflower dish providing eletricity and clean water. Credit@Airlightenergy

The Sunflower dish providing eletricity and clean water. Credit@Airlightenergy

Unveiled in Zurich last month the sun – tracking dish aims to provide off grid areas with a free source of renewable energy.  This electricity may be used by the “Sunflower” to generate clean water, heating and provide refrigeration. Airlight Energy plan to test the dishes in remote locations early in 2016. Locations may include rural areas of Morocco, India, Africa and Australia. Should the device be successful in these areas, Airlight Energy aims to have the product on the market in 2017. The company also believes that rural hospitals and hotels may invest in the “Sunflower” – inspired by its affordable, efficient design and the clean energy alternative.

Electricity for local housing is an obvious benefit of the system. However, utilising the hot water generated from the cooling system may be used to desalinate and purify water. The desalinator, also designed by IBM, is integrated with the “Sunflower” to extract salt by evaporating and condensing the water through a polymer membrane. 2500 litres of fresh water may be produced a day, according to IBM. Customisation of the device is also available, so developers may implement other water purifying technologies for inland communities.

Reports indicate that solar energy may play an important part in the future of electricity production. As demonstrated by the “Sunflower”, the technology is constantly moving forwards – becoming more affordable and efficient. Further developments, such as finding methods to store the energy created by the “Sunflower” are underway by IBM.  The sun is a green source of renewable energy. Therefore embracing this technology may create a cleaner, more environmentally stable planet.

What other sustainable sources of energy may help more remote communities thrive?

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