Solar Thermal Gets A Boost From Atom Smashers

Nobody was aiming to bring MMOGs, teenage Canadian boy singers and, um, porn to the masses when the foundations of the Internet were laid; the goal was to give pointy-heads a way to swap academic and military data and research.

But where science and commerce merge, technological breakthroughs have a way of morphing, as on the roof of the main terminal building at Geneva International Airport. There, some 300 high-temperature solar thermal panels, bound to cover 1,200 square meters, are going in. What makes this more than just another big solar installation—and it will apparently be one of the largest in Switzerland—is the vacuum technology in the panels and where it was born: It comes from work done at CERN, the famed European Organization for Nuclear Research.

CERN, SRB Energy ultra-high vacuum technology solar

image via CERN

According to CERN, the SRB Energy panels being installed at the Geneva airport use an ultra-high vacuum that gives the panels’ heat chambers extraordinary insulation, slashing heat loss. The insulation is so good, CERN said, that even with their internal temperature topping 170 F, snow has remained on the panels.

That wasn’t the use scientists had in mind when they developed the vacuum technology.

They were aiming to accelerate and smash particles into each other—and that only works in an airless environment. Not just any old vacuum would do the trick, either; because beams of particles were “running for hours at a time, with (only) a few particles actually colliding at any given crossing point,” CERN said, the vacuum had to be as pristine as possible.

Research on ultra-high vacuums began in 1971, and through the ’80 and ‘90s the scientists developed and improved upon what are called “getter strips,” a material that “attracts residual gas molecules like bugs to flypaper.” The emergence of thin-film coating techniques gave the ultra-high vacuums opened the door to a brilliant use in solar power systems.

CERN said that in addition to stifling heat loss, the panels “recover the energy produced by diffuse light more efficiently than traditional panels,” all of which makes this sort of panel  a winner in “colder, less sunny climates where classic solar panels are less efficient.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.