When most people think of solar power, they imagine a simple solar panel on the roof of their building. But to really amass a significant amount of energy from our Sun, we need to use reflecting dishes, known as solar concentrators, to align solar rays into a single energy-collecting point.
The problem with solar collectors is all that concentrated energy also produces a lot of heat, which ends up frying the electronics with what's effectively a photonic laser. To fix the issue, IBM, in collaboration with Airlight Energy and Swiss university partners, used the same microchannel water-cooling technology IBM developed to prevent the Aquasar supercomputer from burning itself out to cool off photovoltaic generators.
According to the researchers, the High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal (HCPVT) system is equipped with hundreds of "triple junction photovoltaic chips" all connected to a microchannel-liquid cooled system. Each of these square-centimeter chips can convert sunlight into 200-250 watts, on average, over a typical eight-hour day. According to IBM, the system can capture energy that's 2000 times more concentrated than that given off by the Sun.
"We plan to use triple-junction photovoltaic cells on a microchannel-cooled module which can directly convert more than 30 percent of collected solar radiation into electrical energy, and allow for the efficient recovery of waste heat above 50 percent," said Dr. Bruno Michel, manager, advanced thermal packaging at IBM Research, in a release.
While the main function of the water-cooled system is to keep the electronics running, the scientists say they can also utilize the scalding hot water to power a desalination system. Supposedly, a large solar energy collection system could convert salt water from the sea into 30 to 40 liters of safe, drinkable water.
For now, the team is only testing one prototype HCPVT located in Switzerland. The researchers, however, envision that their system will be able to provide sustainable energy and fresh water to locations around the world including Southern Europe, Africa, Arabic peninsula, southwestern United States, South America, and Australia