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Solar Material Shows Hot Potential

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

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A spray-applied, solar-harvesting nanomaterial that may replicate the reflective power of 100,000 mirrors has a group of California engineers all fired up.

The material makes the claims of a solar superhero, boasting the ability to:

  • Use more than 90 percent of captured sunlight;
  • Withstand temperatures greater than 1300°F; and
  • Reduce the need for yearly coating maintenance projects that shut down power plants.

While current solar absorber materials quickly break down in high-temperature environments, the new nanoparticle-based material can survive for many years outdoors, even exposed to air and humidity, according to the research team at the University of California, San Diego, Jacobs School of Engineering.

concentrating solar power
David Baillot / UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

Graduate student Bryan VanSaders measures how much simulated sunlight a new nanomaterial can absorb.

The work was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's SunShot program, an initiative that seeks to make solar energy cost-competitive with other forms of electricity by the end of the decade.

Sunlight's 'Black Hole'

The hybrid material uses particles ranging in size from 10 nanometers to 10 micrometers to create a multiscale surface that can trap and absorb light, boosting the material's ability to operate efficiently at higher temperatures.

"We wanted to create a material that absorbs sunlight that doesn't let any of it escape," said Sungho Jin, a professor in the department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. "We want the black hole of sunlight."

Jin developed the silicon boride-coated nanoshell material with Zhaowei Liu, a professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department; and Renkun Chen, a professor in the Mechanical Engineering department.

UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering
Renkun Chen / UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

The nanoparticle-based material for concentrating solar power plants converts 90 percent of sunlight to heat and can withstand temperatures over 1300°F for extended periods.

The research team has been working on the material for three years. They spray-painted the nanoshell material onto a metal substrate for thermal and mechanical testing and measured its ability to absorb sunlight in an optics laboratory.

From Sunlight to Steam

Current systems for concentrating solar power (CSP) use more than 100,000 reflective mirrors to direct sunlight at a tower that has been spray-painted with a light-absorbing black paint material.

The coating absorbs as much sunlight as possible and converts it directly into electricity. However, this method doesn't withstand the heat for very long. Shutdowns are required nearly every year, to remove degraded absorbing material and apply new coatings.

The new material aims to solve these issues by absorbing solar energy for heat, which then heats molten salt to create the steam that runs electricity-producing turbines—similar to how power plants burn coal or fossil fuels to heat and evaporate water to create steam.

Since it uses steam to generate electricity, CSP technology can be used to retrofit existing power plants. Additionally, the molten salt used by CSP plants can be stored in thermal storage tanks, creating steam and electricity around the clock if desired, the researchers said.

energy alternatives
David Baillot / UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

"We wanted to create a material that absorbs sunlight that doesn't let any of it escape," said Sungho Jin, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. "We want the black hole of sunlight."

According to the university, CSP is an emerging alternative clean-energy market that produces about 3.5 gigawatts of power at power plants globally, or enough to power over two million homes. Additional construction now underway is expected to provide up to 20 gigawatts of power in the next several years.

More on the Research

Researchers included graduate students Justin Taekyoung Kim, Bryan VanSaders and Jaeyun Moon.

The research was published in two articles in the journal Nano Energy: "High performance multi-scaled nanostructured spectrally selective coating for concentrating solar power" in the September 2014 issue and "Si boride-coated Si nanoparticles with improved thermal oxidation resistance" in the October 2014 issue.


Tagged categories: Colleges and Universities; Nanotechnology; Research; Solar; Solar energy; U.S. Department of Energy

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