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Posted: February 20, 2009

Rensselaer-funded team at Albany Materialab develops new design to harness power from sunlight

(Nanowerk News) Just as many academic departments and research efforts on campus at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are currently aimed at providing clean, more efficient energy, an interdisciplinary research firm at Materialab based out of Rensselaer, is working on integrated concentrated solar modules that are expected to convert 30 percent of the sun’s light into electricity and another 50 percent into heat.
While other photovoltaic systems have been available since the 1970s, they only perform within a 12–15 percent operating efficiency. However, progress at Materialab indicates that the new solar modules could also provide up to 50 percent of the energy for the operational needs of a building.
Anna Dyson, the founder of the Materialab consortium and director of the project, is a Yale graduate who brought together a cross-disciplinary team of scientists and engineers to design the new photovoltaic system they are working on. “I realized that in order to produce enough energy to actually change the energy-consumption prole of a building, photovoltaic systems had to move well beyond what was available in the marketplace,” said Dyson.
The project is currently drawing from the fields of nanotechnology, optical and electrical engineering, solid state lighting. The team thus far has been able to harness and optimize the absorption of the sun’s energy and transfer it into and electrical systems. “If you’re going to do interdisciplinary research, which is essential when developing an ecological system, you have to look at multiple scales simultaneously,” Dyson says.
Dyson largely drew her project’s expertise from Rensselaer professors and researchers, such as Michael Jensen, who is working to optimize the transfer of thermal energy from solar cells to building systems for numerous functions, and RPI engineer Partha Dutta, who is determining an optimal combination of semiconductors, as well as Nadarajah Narendran, the lead engineer of the project from Rensselaer’s Lighting Research Center.
Dyson also looked to researchers elsewhere. Physicist Peter Stark from Harvard University, who is designing a custom lens to control lighting, is among many of the others who are collaborating on the new project.
The New York State Energy Research Development Association contributed a large research grant of more than $1 million to the project grants. Peter Douglas, program director of NYSERDA, said, “Traditionally our research-and-design department has sponsored manufacturers developing stand-alone devices. Rarely have we gotten involved with architects, even though they play an important role in specifying products.”
Douglas also noted that the addition of the imagination and ingenuity of the architectural minds working on the project gives NYSERDA hope for a credible solution that will help their long term goal of helping the nation lower the cost of solar energy to the point where it can compete with fossil fuels. “In a building, all of the systems are interdependent, yet they get developed separately.
In our culture of highly specialized research, visualizing the relationship between all of these technologies is critical, and that’s the work of an architect.”
If the project is successful, the team intends to reconstruct or retrofit existing buildings for lower than $1 per watt. The team would come up with a system to rebuild buildings or retrofit them by placing them in a double-skinned envelope with glazing to transmit a greater portion of the solar spectrum. A full-scale prototype of the photovoltaic design should be ready for testing in two years.
Source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Hickox)