When you think of solar panels, the flat shapes atop homes, carports, office buildings and elsewhere come to mind. This typical design has its pluses and minuses, but has long been the industry standard. MIT researchers, however, look to be turning that model on its head, unveiling interesting new research that suggests 3-D designs could dramatically increase the solar power generated from a given area.
This innovative design, which you can see detailed below, consists of building cubes or towers, according to MIT, that extend the solar cells upward in 3-D configurations. The MIT researchers said the results from these structures show “power output ranging from double to more than 20 times that of fixed flat panels with the same base area.”
While 3-D arrangements of solar cells aren’t entirely new, the MIT researchers say their approach, which is detailed in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, is unique because it “is the first to approach the problem with a systematic and predictive analysis.”
Both computer modeling and outdoor testing of real modules were said to have been done in this study, with the biggest power boosts found “in locations far from the equator, in winter months and on cloudier days.” The reason for this? It’s because these 3-D structures’ vertical surfaces “can collect much more sunlight during mornings, evenings and winters, when the sun is closer to the horizon.”
One challenge in seeing quick, widespread adoption of these 3-D solar designs might be cost; MIT noted that the cost of energy generated using their design exceeds that of ordinary flat panels. The researchers believe, however, that this expense could be balanced somewhat by factors such as a much higher energy output for a given footprint and more uniform power output over the course of a day, seasons of the year and “in the face of blockage from clouds or shadows.”
Researchers, who up to this point have modeled individual 3-D modules, said they next plan to study how a collection of these solar towers might work together. While one such tower could be installed in a parking lot to power a charging station for electric vehicles, a group of towers could possibly be used in larger-scale applications, such as solar farms, with a fraction of the footprint of ones being built today, once potential development issues are addressed.
“I think this concept could become an important part of the future of photovoltaics,” says the paper’s senior author, Jeffrey Grossman, an associate professor of power engineering at MIT, in a statement.