Solar photovoltaic cells have a big cost barrier to get to widespread adoption. Paired up with difficult weather like hail and wind much of the world remains completely out of bounds. So when something really clever and innovative shows up, its worth a close look.

Morgan Solar’s whiz, John Paul Morgan came up with a light management idea that solves at least in a very large part the huge cost of the high efficiency silicon chips that make up the largest material cost in a solar cell.

The Morgan Light Collector

The Morgan Light Collector

The idea is to use a shaped panel of optical material to guide the incoming light to the corners and direct them onto the silicon there. So instead of a surface fully covered with silicon solar cells only two small ones per unit are used. This obviously greatly reduces the silicon cost and makes it possible in cost to use the very high efficiency ones from premium manufacturers.

Against this technique is the thin film business with high-powered companies like First Solar, Nanosolar, and others who print cells on sheets of substrate. But the savings of thin film in production equals losses in efficiency. While this moment isn’t proving up the “real estate” costs, the areas needed for installations, it will be a significant issue sooner than anyone is thinking today. That reality coming will open a door wide to Morgan’s form of light collector to photovoltaic cell panels. (That’s a clumsy description but accurate. The vernacular is “concentrating photovoltaics,” or CSP.)

Morgan isn’t alone, concentrating light isn’t a new idea. Several companies are working at developing an easy to gather and concentrate the light to a reduced field of silicon. Mirrors and lenses are the most common tools used. But Morgan has jumped to a new field similar to the attributes of fiber optics.

Morgan is also aware of the weather and environmental conditions. The optical panel Morgan designed has to guide the light to a tiny solar cell, while high winds and bombardments from hail and heavy rain would dislodge the alignment. Even in clear weather the solar cell would have to handle the energy of 1400 suns of concentration with the potential over time reaching into thousands of suns.

What Morgan has today is pieces of acrylic or glass designed to capture sunlight as it hits a triangular surface less than a centimeter (4 tenths of an inch) thick. Once inside the material, the sunlight is trapped and corralled through a bottom layer to one corner, where a tiny sliver of solar cell is positioned to absorb the barrage of concentrated light. The triangles are packaged together to form a square about the size of a CD/DVD case and assemblies of these squares make up a single panel.

The materials that make up the panels are nothing fancy or expensive. The solar panels are flat, lighter, cheaper to build and can concentrate the light at up to 1,400. The optical alignment internally is not affected by thermal expansion. Heat is dissipated without the need for expensive or sophisticated cooling systems, and extra protection or enclosures are unnecessary. Systems are claimed to operate at 24 to 28%. That’s the good part.

The downside is to get maximum productivity the panels would need to be aligned by tracking to the sun, but would be practical in non-tracking systems integrated onto buildings. Not much of a downside if the testing pans out well. Tracking is a rather costly addition to a photovoltaic kit.

One thing is certain, using glass or acrylics for the vast bulk of the panel and only two little silicon cells per 20 to 25 square inches is a huge advantage. Acrylic can withstand a lot of abuse, which should cheer up the heavy and windy weather folks.

So . . . Maybe the big break is here for solar photovoltaic. It looks good. If the prototype tests work out as hoped the solar world just got a serious shakeup!


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