A team of MIT researchers has come up with a very different approach: building cubes or towers that extend the solar cells upward in three-dimensional configurations. Amazingly, the results from the structures they’ve tested show power output ranging from double to more than 20 times that of fixed flat panels with the same base area.
Two small-scale versions of three-dimensional photovoltaic arrays were among those tested by Jeffrey Grossman and his team on an MIT rooftop to measure their actual electrical output throughout the day.
Photo: Allegra Boverman
The biggest boosts in power were seen in the situations where improvements are most needed: in locations far from the equator, in winter months and on cloudier days. The new findings, based on both computer modeling and outdoor testing of real modules.
We formulate, solve computationally and study experimentally the problem of collecting solar energy in three dimensions. We demonstrate that absorbers and reflectors can be combined in the absence of sun tracking to build three-dimensional photovoltaic (3DPV) structures that can generate measured energy densities (energy per base area, kWh/m2) higher by a factor of 2–20 than stationary flat PV panels for the structures considered here, compared to an increase by a factor of 1.3–1.8 for a flat panel with dual-axis sun tracking. The increased energy density is countered by a larger solar cell area per generated energy for 3DPV compared to flat panels (by a factor of 1.5–4 in our conditions), but accompanied by a vast range of improvements. 3DPV structures can mitigate some of the variability inherent to solar PV as they provide a more even source of solar energy generation at all latitudes: they can double the number of peak power generation hours and dramatically reduce the seasonal, latitude and weather variations of solar energy generation compared to a flat panel design. Self-supporting 3D shapes can create new schemes for PV installation and the increased energy density can facilitate the use of cheaper thin film materials in area-limited applications. Our findings suggest that harnessing solar energy in three dimensions can open new avenues towards Terawatt-scale generation.
The MIT team initially used a computer algorithm to explore an enormous variety of possible configurations, and developed analytic software that can test any given configuration under a whole range of latitudes, seasons and weather. Then, to confirm their model’s predictions, they built and tested three different arrangements of solar cells on the roof of an MIT laboratory building for several weeks.
While the cost of a given amount of energy generated by such 3-D modules exceeds that of ordinary flat panels, the expense is partially balanced by a much higher energy output for a given footprint, as well as much more uniform power output over the course of a day, over the seasons of the year, and in the face of blockage from clouds or shadows. These improvements make power output more predictable and uniform, which could make integration with the power grid easier than with conventional systems, the authors say.
The basic physical reason for the improvement in power output — and for the more uniform output over time — is that the 3-D structures’ vertical surfaces can collect much more sunlight during mornings, evenings and winters, when the sun is closer to the horizon, says co-author Marco Bernardi, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE).
The time is ripe for such an innovation, Grossman adds, because solar cells have become less expensive than accompanying support structures, wiring and installation. As the cost of the cells themselves continues to decline more quickly than these other costs, they say, the advantages of 3-D systems will grow accordingly.
“Even 10 years ago, this idea wouldn’t have been economically justified because the modules cost so much,” Grossman says. But now, he adds, “the cost for silicon cells is a fraction of the total cost, a trend that will continue downward in the near future.” Currently, up to 65 percent of the cost of photovoltaic (PV) energy is associated with installation, permission for use of land and other components besides the cells themselves.
Although computer modeling by Grossman and his colleagues showed that the biggest advantage would come from complex shapes — such as a cube where each face is dimpled inward — these would be difficult to manufacture, says co-author Nicola Ferralis, a research scientist in DMSE. The algorithms can also be used to optimize and simplify shapes with little loss of energy. It turns out the difference in power output between such optimized shapes and a simpler cube is only about 10 to 15 percent — a difference that is dwarfed by the greatly improved performance of 3-D shapes in general, he says. The team analyzed both simpler cubic and more complex accordion-like shapes in their rooftop experimental tests.
At first, the researchers were distressed when almost two weeks went by without a clear, sunny day for their tests. But then, looking at the data, they realized they had learned important lessons from the cloudy days, which showed a huge improvement in power output over conventional flat panels.
For an accordion-like tower — the tallest structure the team tested — the idea was to simulate a tower that “you could ship flat, and then could unfold at the site,” Grossman says. Such a tower could be installed in a parking lot to provide a charging station for electric vehicles, he says.
So far, the team has modeled individual 3-D modules. A next step is to study a collection of such towers, accounting for the shadows that one tower would cast on others at different times of day. In general, 3-D shapes could have a big advantage in any location where space is limited, such as flat-rooftop installations or in urban environments, they say. Such shapes could also be used in larger-scale applications, such as solar farms, once shading effects between towers are carefully minimized.
David Gracias, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University who was not involved in this research, says that Grossman and his team “have demonstrated theoretical and proof-of-concept evidence that 3-D photovoltaic elements could provide significant benefits in terms of capturing light at different angles. The challenge, however, is to mass produce these elements in a cost-effective manner.”