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Solar-thermal flat-panels that generate electric power: Researchers see broad residential and industrial applications

Date:
May 2, 2011
Source:
Boston College
Summary:
By using a nanostructured material with improved thermoelectric properties inside a vacuum-sealed flat panel, researchers report adding the capacity to generate electricity to solar-thermal energy technology.

Doctoral student Daniel Kraemer, right, and Professor Gang Chen display a prototype of a flat-panel solar-thermoelectric generating device.
Credit: Melanie Gonick, MIT

High-performance nanotech materials arrayed on a flat panel platform demonstrated seven to eight times higher efficiency than previous solar thermoelectric generators, opening up solar-thermal electric power conversion to a broad range of residential and industrial uses, a team of researchers from Boston College and MIT report in the journal Nature Materials.

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Two technologies have dominated efforts to harness the power of the sun's energy. Photovoltaics convert sunlight into electric current, while solar-thermal power generation uses sunlight to heat water and produce thermal energy. Photovoltaic cells have been deployed widely as flat panels, while solar-thermal power generation employs sunlight-absorbing surfaces feasible in residential and large-scale industrial settings.

Because of limited material properties, solar thermal devices have heretofore failed to economically generate enough electric power. The team's introduced two innovations: a better light-absorbing surface through enhanced nanostructured thermoelectric materials, which was then placed within an energy-trapping, vacuum-sealed flat panel. Combined, both measures added enhanced electricity-generating capacity to solar-thermal power technology, said Boston College Professor of Physics Zhifeng Ren, a co-author of the paper.

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

Using nanotechnology engineering methods, the team combined high-performance thermoelectric materials and spectrally-selective solar absorbers in a vacuum-sealed chamber to boost conversion efficiency, according to the co-authors, which include MIT's Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering Gang Chen, Boston College and MIT graduate students and researchers at GMZ Energy, a Massachusetts clean energy research company co-founded by Ren and Chen.

The findings open up a promising new approach that has the potential to achieve cost-effective conversion of solar energy into electricity, an advance that should impact the rapidly expanding residential and industrial clean energy markets, according to Ren.

"Existing solar-thermal technologies do a good job generating hot water. For the new product, this will produce both hot water and electricity," said Ren. "Because of the new ability to generate valuable electricity, the system promises to give users a quicker payback on their investment. This new technology can shorten the payback time by one third."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Boston College. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Daniel Kraemer, Bed Poudel, Hsien-Ping Feng, J. Christopher Caylor, Bo Yu, Xiao Yan, Yi Ma, Xiaowei Wang, Dezhi Wang, Andrew Muto, Kenneth McEnaney, Matteo Chiesa, Zhifeng Ren, Gang Chen. High-performance flat-panel solar thermoelectric generators with high thermal concentration. Nature Materials, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nmat3013

Cite This Page:

Boston College. "Solar-thermal flat-panels that generate electric power: Researchers see broad residential and industrial applications." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 May 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110501183821.htm>.
Boston College. (2011, May 2). Solar-thermal flat-panels that generate electric power: Researchers see broad residential and industrial applications. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 25, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110501183821.htm
Boston College. "Solar-thermal flat-panels that generate electric power: Researchers see broad residential and industrial applications." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110501183821.htm (accessed January 25, 2015).

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