Designing a More Self-Sufficient Solar Panel

By Rachel Harrington

An illustration of electrodynamic removal of dust from solar collectors.
An illustration of electrodynamic removal of dust from solar collectors.

Research Professor Malay Mazumder and Professor Mark Horenstein (both ECE)
Research Professor Malay Mazumder and Professor Mark Horenstein (both ECE)

As companies and homeowners alike look for greener ways to power their homes and businesses, solar panels are becoming an increasingly popular option.

Unfortunately, how much energy a solar panel generates depends on how clean the equipment is, and it’s not always easy—or cheap—to keep the panels spotless. Dust and dirt can block sunlight and reduce the amount of energy yielded.

At Boston University,  Research Professor Malay Mazumder (ECE), Professor Mark Horenstein (ECE) and Associate Professor Nitin Joglekar (SMG) aim to solve this problem by designing a more self-sufficient panel with a cleaning component that would electrodynamically remove dust.

 “Because cleaning solar collectors with water is expensive in desert conditions, solar plants often operate with dusty panels until water is absolutely necessary,” said Mazumder. “Electrodynamic dust removal would not require water and could be operated as frequently as needed at a miniscule cost.”

The BU team is now one step closer toward achieving its goal after the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) awarded grants to support this research. The DOE will provide $955,340 for solar mirrors for photothermal energy conversion while MassCEC will give another $40,000 that will be used toward developing self-cleaning photovoltaic solar panels.

“The solar energy industry is growing at a rate of 33 percent or better in the U.S., and the renewable energy industry has shown strong growth since 2011,” said Mazumder, the project’s principal investigator. “It is very timely that the DOE and Mass CEC would want to invest in this project so that the solar plants can operate at their highest efficiency.”

Mazumder, Horenstein and Joglekar are now advancing prototypes that use electric fields to lift and move dust particles across the solar collector and ultimately remove them entirely. The BU team will partner with Abengoa Solar, which will assist in developing and testing the prototype devices in the field. Abengoa is currently installing the world’s largest solar plant in Arizona and is a leader in solar energy technology development. Sandia National Laboratories will also help evaluate the new solar collectors.

Mazumder has been working toward developing an electrodynamic screen for solar panels for nearly 12 years. NASA funded his initial project, which centered on developing self-cleaning panels that could be used in missions to Mars and the moon.

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