Designing a More Self-Sufficient Solar Panel

in Energy & Environment Sector, Faculty, News, Operations & Technology Management
September 5th, 2012

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 is dependent on how clean the equipment is and it’s not always easy–or cheap–to keep the panels spotless. Both dust and dirt can block sunlight and reduce the amount of energy yielded.

Boston University professors, Malay Mazumder (ECE), Mark Horenstein (ECE), and Nitin Joglekar (SMG), are hoping to solve this problem by designing a more self-sufficient panel that includes a cleaning component that would rely on electrodynamic removal of 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 professors are now one step closer toward achieving their goal after the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (DOE EERE) and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) awarded them grants for their research. The DOE will provide $955,340 for solar mirrors for photothermal energy conversion while MassCEC will give another $40k that will be used toward developing self-cleaning photovoltaic solar panels.

“The solar energy industry is growing at a rate of 33% or better in the U.S., and the renewable energy industry has shown strong growth since 2011,” said Mazumder. “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 engaged in making prototypes that use electric fields to lift and move dust particles across the solar collector and ultimately remove them entirely.

As part of this project, Boston University will partner with Abengoa Solar, who will assist them in developing and testing out 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, the principal investigator on the grant, has been working toward developing an electrodynamic screen for solar panels for nearly 12 years. NASA funded his initial project, which centered around developing self-cleaning panels that could be used in missions to Mars and the moon. He has been working with Abengoa for the last two years and Sandia for one year.

Story by Rachel Harrington via BU Electrical & Computer Engineering.