Sunflowers Inspire Better Solar Power Tech
January 23, 2012
By Mark Brown of Wired UK: We’ve all seen concentrated solar power (CSP) plants — those rows and rows of shiny mirror heliostats all crowded around a 100-metre-high pillar, like worshippers peering up at a towering god.
The orchestra of mirrors track the sun throughout the day, bouncing rays up at the central tower where the heat is concentrated, converted into electricity and piped into the national grid. Only a small handful of these plants — like PS10, in the Spanish desert region of Andalucia — exist around the world.
Their growth is restricted thanks to their sizable footprints. “Concentrated solar thermal energy needs huge areas,” said Alexander Mitsos, the Rockwell International assistant professor of mechanical engineering, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a press release.
“If we’re talking about going to 100 percent or even 10 percent renewables, we will need huge areas, so we better use them efficiently,” he said in the release.
Mitsos and colleagues have come up with a new design for CSPs that reduces the required amount of land while boosting the amount of sunlight the heliostat mirrors collect. In perhaps the most beautiful example of biomimicry yet, it’s inspired by sunflowers.
The researchers at MIT, in collaboration with RWTH Aachen University in Germany, looked at the layout of current CSP plants. They put spaces between the mirrors and staggered them like seats in a movie theater. This pattern results in shadows being cast on some mirrors, reducing the reflection of light.
Mitsos’ lab developed a computational model to evaluate the efficiency of heliostat layouts — the system divides each mirror into discrete sections and accurately calculates the amount of light each section reflects at any given moment.
Mitsos and colleague Corey Noone used numerical optimization to fiddle with the placement of the heliostats. They brought the fanned-out layout closer together, building a spiral-like pattern that reduces land by ten percent without affecting efficiency. Read more