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IBM’s High-Efficiency Solar Device Provides Electricity and Potable Water

Thanks to a $2.4 million, three-year grant from the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation, the research and development of an affordable, highly-efficient photovoltaic system that also provides air conditioning and potable water is in the works.

The project’s aim is to build an economical version of their High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal (HCPVT) system, which is said to be able to concentrate solar energy by a factor of 2000, while converting 80% of the incoming radiation into usable energy.

The HCPVT system uses a large parabolic dish filled with mirrored facets that reflect the sun’s rays onto hundreds of tiny triple junction PV chips, with the entire device attached to a sun tracking system for keeping the dish at an optimum angle to the sun.

The triple junction chips, each measuring just 1 cm square, are said to be able to convert 200 to 250 watts over an average eight-hour day, and are mounted in such a way that the liquid coolants are extremely close to the chip for maximum cooling potential.

“We plan to use triple-junction photovoltaic cells on a micro-channel cooled module which can directly convert more than 30 percent of collected solar radiation into electrical energy and allow for the efficient recovery of an additional 50 percent waste heat. We believe that we can achieve this with a very practical design that is made of lightweight and high strength concrete, which is used in bridges, and primary optics composed of inexpensive pneumatic mirrors – it’s frugal innovation, but builds on decades of experience in microtechnology.” – Bruno Michel, advanced thermal packaging at IBM Research

The design of the system will not only produce electricity efficiently, but will also use the heat energy from cooling the chips in the dish for water desalination and a thermal driven adsorption chiller, which could effectively replace standard compression chillers for air conditioning and cooling purposes.

Researchers working on the project believe that because of the simplicity of the design, the HCPVT systems could be a cost-effective solution for sustainable power and drinking water production in many sunny areas of the world.

“The design of the system is elegantly simple. We replace expensive steel and glass with low cost concrete and simple pressurized metalized foils. The small high-tech components, in particular the microchannel coolers and the molds, can be manufactured in Switzerland with the remaining construction and assembly done in the region of the installation. This leads to a win-win situation where the system is cost competitive and jobs are created in both regions.” – Andrea Pedretti, chief technology officer at Airlight Energy.

A prototype of the HCPVT system is currently being tested at IBM Research in Zurich.

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