There is an approach to innovation called “biomimicry” that essentially advocates stealing ideas from nature and making them our own. After all, homo sapiens have only been around for about 100,000 years, but nature has had over 3.8 billion years to figure out — well, everything related to living. So, why not borrow some ideas from what evolution has perfected?
That’s what researchers from IBM and Airlight Energy may have thought when they developed Project Sunflower. The project borrows its design cues from the human body’s blood supply system, as well as the way young sunflowers move in the direction of the sun. So, what happens when you combine engineering minds and Mother Nature? An ultra-efficient, multipurpose solar power system that may be a game changer for off-grid locations.
The Potential Of Project Sunflower
1.3 billion people do not have access to electricity, and 2.5 billion people do not have access to proper sanitation — a number that is expected to increase at a rate of 9 percent annually, according to Airlight Energy. Project Sunflower is designed to solve that problem by hitting four birds with one stone (figuratively).
This sunflower doesn’t just produce electricity from solar energy — it also purifies and desalinates water, produces heat, and can even be used to cool a home. Here’s how it works:
Cooling 2,000 Suns
The surface of the sunflower’s curved dish is covered in reflective, mirrored panels. Notably, these panels are coated in aluminum foil, which is not only super reflective, but also low-cost. Each reflector harnesses the sun’s solar energy and transfers it to a collector, which uses photovoltaic cells to turn that energy into usable electricity.
On the surface, Project Sunflower’s solar converting technology seems like nothing new. After all, we’ve covered photovoltaic cells before. But what makes this conversion special is the fact that the power of those mirrored panels is equivalent to 2,000 suns — and unsurprisingly, the heat generated from that much sunlight would normally melt most photovoltaic panels into expensive goop.
Fortunately, IBM recognized this issue and came up with a handy solution based on the cooling system it uses for its supercomputers. In Project Sunflower, tiny channels transport water around the sunflower to keep it cool — similar to the way our bodies evolved to transport blood. Thanks, evolution!
The end result is a solar tower kept at peak operating temperature, converting about 80 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity. That number is a far cry from other solar systems, which can normally only convert 10 to 30 percent of sunlight into usable energy — which makes this project a promising solution in areas that need simple, renewable energy the most.
A Drop-In Solution
With the power of 2,000 suns on hand, Project Sunflower can generate plenty of hot water. In other solar power systems, excess hot water is simply vented out into the atmosphere. But IBM and Airlight Energy realized that while electricity is obviously useful, so is heat — which can be used to heat homes, purify water through desalination, and even power refrigeration.
For off-grid locations like rural hospitals, an all-in-one solution to their energy needs makes living simpler. Here’s a run-down of a few of the reported benefits of Project Sunflower, which is scheduled to hit commercial markets in 2017:
- Long lifetime (60 years)
- Designed to be transported in a single shipping container, allowing a tower to be delivered to any location
- About 11 square feet of solar towers could make 8 to 10 gallons of fresh water on a sunny day
- Purified water can be made easily accessible to remote regions
- Aside from off-grid locations, the solar towers are ideal for small- to medium-sized industries, utilities, research institutes, and other applications
While the solar tower is potentially a game changer, it still has some obstacles to work through — namely, energy storage is still an issue. The system’s output numbers also rely on locations that get at least 8 hours of sunlight per day; energy storage will still be required to get through periods of inclement sunlight, i.e. evenings and overcast days.
Additionally, each solar power system produces 12 kW of electricity, which is enough to power three or four homes at a time. A field of sunflowers would be needed to power anything on a larger scale. For instance, a small camp hospital with minimal energy requirements could easily use just one tower — but a more conventional hospital with extensive energy needs could require upwards of 100 sunflowers.
During Project Sunflower’s early adoption phase this year, Gianluca Ambrosetti, head of research at Airlight Energy, told CNN that the company aims to have “four or five dishes in various locations around the world to show the potential of the system, so people can really start to touch it with their hands.”
A gigantic, concrete tower that can melt metal may seem cool and sci-fi, but the way in which Project Sunflower takes a multi-functional approach to solving energy needs is truly novel in the renewable energy field — and, ideally, inspiring. After all, efficiently solving energy needs in a scalable way can pave the way for a truly sustainable future — and Project Sunflower is a promising step in that journey.