Generating electricity from sunlight is nothing new. But now IBM in partnership with Airlight Energy has found a way to tackle two problems at once. They’ve developed 30-foot sunflower-shaped solar concentrators that can generate electricity while at the same time desalinate water to make it drinkable. The double-duty utility of the technology could work best in hot climates where fresh water is scare.
Called a High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal (HCPVT) system, each “flower” is a parabolic dish comprised of 36 mirrors made of recyclable, silver-coated plastic. The mirrors collectively concentrate the sunlight onto photovoltaic chips that convert 80 percent of the sunlight harvested into useful energy. Each chip can produce up to 57 watts each on a sunny day and an array could, with the entire dish generating up to 12 kilowatts of electrical power and 20 kilowatts of heat — plenty of energy and heat to supply several average homes.
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As you might imagine, the chips get super hot, so the scientist added a system that passes cooling liquid through micro-channels, which carry the heat away and prevent the photovoltaics from overheating. With some minor modifications, that system could also work to produce fresh water. In a press release, IBM researchers say:
“For example, salt water can pass through a porous membrane distillation system, where it is vaporized and desalinated. Such a system could provide 30 to 40 liters of drinkable water per square meter of receiver area per day…a little less than half the amount of water the average person needs per day according to the United Nations, whereas a large multi-dish installation could provide enough water for a town.”
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A large, transparent enclosure protects the dish from the elements and also keeps birds from flying into the super-heated zones, where they could literally be fried.
At the moment, IBM and Airlight Energy is accepting applications from those who think think such a system would work well for their residents. Two deserving communities will receive a free system. Winners announced in December 2015, and installations beginning in 2016.