Solar Power Solutions

A half an hour into the first meeting, equations and model drawings covered the photonics white board with blue ink. Professor Malay Mazumder and five engineering students fired shop jargon across the table. The group is taking on a project NASA has spent billions to test: self-cleaning solar panels.

To a bystander, this could have been a foreign language class. Students asked questions such as, “What should we use to simulate wind?” and “What type of dust samples should be tested?”

Mazumder rattled off answers with confidence: A computer fan would work, and Arizona road dust is the standard.

The students jotted down the answers as their mission is to complete a working model of this self-cleaning solar panel by the end of the spring semester. The model tests the removal of dust particles using electrodynamic waves with solar energy as the power source. In arid climates, where solar panels are used, dust build up can reduce the efficiency of panels causing a rise in maintenance fees.

Sustainability has become a hot topic for businesses lately, according to Mazumder. Low maintanence cost is a draw for organizations interested in installing solar panels. When the team is finished with the model for their senior design project, they will be able to pitch the idea to solar companies.

“You can spray a hose or use windex if there’s a solar panel on your roof, but when it comes to large scales–we’re talking several kilometers–you need a more efficient [cleaning] method,” says Dylan Jackson (ENG ’10), who is working on the project for his master’s thesis. “Water washing dust off isn’t reliable and neither is tilting.”

Making the self-sustaining cleaning method efficient and cheap is Jackson’s role in the project. The other group members will build the actual model, eventually hooking up to a computer interface to project the data. By project completion, the team will have tested such variables as soil composition, wind, humidity, and temperature on the model.

NASA originally developed similar models to test dust removal for solar panels located on Mars–a project in which Mazumder contributed. This time he’s advising BU students to create the same engineering problem. For this team, taking on the testing is one small step for man, one giant leap for engineering-kind.

Anna Webster can be reached at annaweb@bu.edu

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