A team of researchers from Tulane University, the University of San Diego, San Diego State University, Boeing-Spectrolab, and Otherlab, have developed a groundbreaking hybrid solar energy converter. The high performing converter generates electricity and steam with high efficiency and runs at a low cost.
The work began in 2014 with a $3.3 million in funding. The research led by associate professors Matthew Escarra and Daniel Codd is the culmination of a U.S. Department of Energy ARPA-E project. Escarra is associated with the department of physics and engineering physics at Tulane, and Codd is associated with the department of mechanical engineering at the University of San Diego.
The research involved years of prototype development at Tulane and field testing in San Diego. Engineers from San Diego State University, Boeing-Spectrolab, and Otherlab were also part of the groundbreaking project. The research is detailed recently in the science journal Cell Reports Physical Science.
The team says that the total collection efficiency is 85.1%, which means a very high amount of the Sun’s energy gets converted into either electricity or heat. The steam can be heated up to 248°C (478.4°F) which is a much higher temperature than many other thermal energy collectors. The team highlighted that once scaled up the device could run for 3 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Escarra stated that thermal energy consumption was a huge piece of the global energy economy, which was much larger than electricity use. He added that there had been a growing interest in solar combined with heat and power systems to deliver electricity. The converter utilises an approach that captures the whole spectrum of sunlight. It generates electricity from high-efficiency multi-junction solar cells. The clever part is that the cells redirect the infrared light (the heat energy) to a separate thermal receiver, which then captures those rays and turns it into thermal energy.
With follow-on funding from Reactwell, a local commercialisation partner, and the Louisiana Board of Regents the team is continuing to work on refining the technology. The researcher team plans to move towards pilot-scale validation. Escarra reiterated that they were pleased to have demonstrated high-performance field operation of the solar converter, and looked forward to its ongoing commercial development.