A team from MIT has been working on an innovative 3D design project, which is intending to more than double the solar power generated from a given area. Most of the current research in this area is focused on improving the performance of solar photovoltaic cells and trying to bring down the cost of producing them. The team at MIT has been looking into more efficient ways of arranging those cells on the surface they have been placed, by building them into towers that extend the solar cells into three dimensional configurations.

Typically the solar panels are attached to motorized structures that keep the cells pointed towards the sun and changing the angle when the sun crosses the sky. MIT’s approach is vastly different from this mechanism in that the structures are not on a flat surface rather than in three dimensional  towers, yielding a significant boost in power output. Their tests have shown a twentyfold increase in comparison with the available flat panel solutions in the same base area.

3D Printing & Solar Energy potential

Photo by Allegra Boverman

Interestingly, the increased power boost has been seen in places where the improvements are most needed, such as the locations far from the equator and during the winter seasons or on cloudy days. The main reason for achieving this increase lies in the 3D stuctures’ vertical surfaces – they simply collect more sunlight during the mornings and evenings or seasons when the sun is closer to the horizon.

“Even 10 years ago, this idea wouldn’t have been economically justified because the modules cost so much,” says Jeffrey Grossman, who is the Carl Richard Soderberg Career Development Associate Professor of Power Engineering at MIT. He adds, “the cost for silicon cells is a fraction of the total cost, a trend that will continue downward in the near future.” Curently the majority of the cost of photovoltaic (PV) energy is associated installation, land permissions and components that have nothing to do with cells themselves.

According to industry experts the evidence is there to support 3D photovoltaic elements providing significant benefits in terms of capturing light at different angles. The challenge remains how to mass-produce these elements in a cost effective manner.

Now these developments are particularly interesting when you consider that MIT is a power player when it comes to 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies. This fact, coupled with a recent post in the Guardian, quoting John J Licata, chief energy strategist at Blue Phoenix, an independent research and consulting company focused on next generation energy. He said, “Right now there is a huge lack of energy storage, which, coupled with known manufacturing inefficiencies, have damaged solar industry sentiment. Therefore future production of solar cells must be more sustainable. This has me intrigued by the potential 3D printing can have on the solar sector.”

So, although these two sources are completely independent, we don’t think we’re coming up with 5, when we add two and two together. It all points to ongoing research in this area and strong potential for 3D printing technology in ongoing Solar power research.