3D solar towers offer up to 20 times more power output than traditional flat solar panels


March 26, 2012

Two small-scale versions of three-dimensional photovoltaic arrays that were tested by MIT researchers (Photo: Allegra Boverman)

Two small-scale versions of three-dimensional photovoltaic arrays that were tested by MIT researchers (Photo: Allegra Boverman)

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While we’ve looked at the development of solar cell technologies that employ nanoscale 3D structures to trap light and increase the amount of solar energy absorbed, MIT researchers have now used 3D on the macro scale to achieve power output that is up to 20 times greater than traditional fixed flat solar panels with the same base area. The approach developed by the researchers involves extending the solar cells upwards in a three-dimensional tower or cube configuration to enable them to better capture the sun's rays when it is lower on the horizon.

Solar panels placed flat on a rooftop are most effective at harnessing solar energy when the sun is close to directly overhead, but quickly lose their efficiency as the angle of the sun’s rays hitting the panel increases – during the mornings, evenings, in the cooler months and in locations far from the equator. It is exactly in these situations that the researcher’s vertical solar modules provided the biggest boosts in power output.

After exploring a variety of possible 3D configurations using a computer algorithm and testing them under a range of latitudes, seasons and weather with specially developed analytic software, the team built three different individual 3D modules and tested them on the MIT lab building roof for several weeks. The results showed a boost in power output ranging from double to more than 20 times that of fixed flat solar panels with the same base area.

By going vertical and collecting more sunlight when the sun is closer to the horizon, the team’s 3D modules were able to generate a more uniform output over time. This uniformity extended over the course of each day, the seasons of a year, and even when accounting for blockage from clouds and shadows.

The researchers say this increase in uniformity could overcome one of the biggest hurdles facing solar energy – predictability of electricity supply that currently makes it difficult to integrate solar power sources into the grid.

They add that this uniformity, as well as the much higher energy output for a given area, would help offset the increased cost of the 3D modules, which are higher per the amount of energy generated when compared to conventional flat solar panels.

While the team’s computer modeling showed complex shapes – such as a cube with each face dimpled inward – would offer a 10 to 15 percent improvement in power output when compared to a simpler cube, these would be difficult to manufacture. In their rooftop tests, the team studied both simpler cube modules as well as more complex accordion-like shapes that could be shipped flat for unfolding on site.

This accordion-like tower was the tallest structure the team tested and such a design could be installed in a parking lot to provide a charging station for electric vehicles, according to Jeffrey Grossman, the senior author of the study and the Carl Richard Soderberg Career Development Associate Professor of Power Engineering at MIT.

Grossman and his colleagues believe that with the fall in the cost of solar cells in recent years - to the point where they have become less expensive than their supporting structures and the outlay for the land upon which they are placed - makes it an ideal time to examine the benefits of different solar cell configurations.

“Even 10 years ago, this idea wouldn’t have been economically justified because the modules cost so much,” Grossman says. But now, he adds, “the cost for silicon cells is a fraction of the total cost, a trend that will continue downward in the near future.”

Buoyed by the success of the tests on the individual 3D modules, the team now plans to study a collection of solar towers that will enable them to examine the effects that one tower’s shadow will have on another as the sun moves across the sky over the course of a day.

While the team believes its 3D solar cells could offer big advantages in flat-rooftop installations or urban environments where space is limited, they say they could also be used in larger-scale applications, such as solar farms, once a configuration that minimizes the shading effects between towers has been developed.

The results of the MIT team’s computer modeling and rooftop testing of real modules appear in the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

Source: MIT

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Are they equating base area to surface area? I always thought base area was the area occupied by the base of an object, its footprint. If this is the definition of base area, then it is no suprise that they are able to increase the power output since (using the solar tower on the left in the picture) they were able to stack 8 solar panels (say 12"x12") within the footprint of one flat panel (also 12"x12"). It would be interesting to know the power output comparisons of this system, the fixed panel and a motorized sun tracking panel to get a truer idea of its potential.

If they are equating base area to surface area, this would be fantastic since it would seem that a solar systems actual surface area could be increased dramatically relative to its footprint.

So, is base area the same as surface area?


MIT has recently been coming up with solutions to nonexistent problems, from the so-called "flying car" to this worthless monstrosity. The problem with solar cells has never been cost per square mile of land but cost per square foot of solar panel. This not only doesn't solve the real problem, but actually makes things worse by decreasing the efficiency of each solar cell and overcompensating with quantity. Idiotic.

Kumi Alexander

Mark, I completely agree with you that the REAL problem is always been cost per PV panel surface. And if you consider the energy per PV panel surface this configuration is a clear, huge LOSS, if compared with optimal mounting in unlimited ground footprint! This kind of rack mount could be useful only in very peculiar situations, when you have a small base surface available, and money to waste (in comparison) for the panels. And you can not put two of this towers close, that's for sure. The stability of the output during the day can maybe be interesting for energy management and storage optimization.. But that's not MIT-level kind of an innovation, not at all.


Mark and Marosini, you are both absolutely right, the major expense with solar in the past was always cell cost not land area. The fact that things like this are starting to be looked at is because as panel costs fall below 80c/W the balance of costs begins to swap to land area. In utility scale projects land acquisition costs are now around 60% of total project costs. This means that looking forward with cell costs set to fall further strategies to maximise output from minimal land or roof footprint will be more cost effective. It also mean expensive and fallible tracking systems are more cheaply replaced with larger numbers of panels positioned to capture different sun periods is becoming more cost effective. I agree that this is a clumsy looking solution but the significance is in the interest being shown and the implications of it.

Robert Smithers

This is very stupid. The simple solution for the problem of solar cells not absorbing oblique sun rays would be to motorize the panels to follow the sun and the problem is solved. This just wastes solar panels and money because MIT are too lazy to motorize their PV panels.

Yusuf Khan

I guess that I'm the only one who read the detailed information on this. This option gives you a 100 to 1900 Percent increase in power with a 50 to 300 increase in cell surface. I think that that gives this a bit of promise.


Where's the data for a avg day? Next thing is these will get longer and maybe start to look like a round tube and suddenly it they've rediscovered a solyndra panel. Can you guess what the installation cost of something like this would be? Great for a military outpost etc but not for a power plant.


OK these are going to be a bitch in high winds

Robert Moynihan

I think it would be easier and very inexpensive to rotate the tower to follow the sun daily and to change the angle of all panels with the seasons than with fixed panels. This could add significantly to the electricity produced per cell.


I'm surprized at how many people are slamming MIT for this research. Granted, you are correct that the article is desceptive because the "efficiency" is defined as power per base area and not panel surface area. However, there are many situations where this kind of technology would be beneficial--especially considering market trends. If the cost of solar panels continues to decrease, it could be cheaper so set the panels up in their configuration rather than spreading out the panels and motorizing them to follow the sun. Also, like they said, this would be the ideal configuration for crowded urban areas. I believe that they would have a good market base to sell these to wealthy urban consumers would are concerned about their enviromental impact (think Beverly Hills).

By the way, Mike.H, I think that you need to analyze the claims in the article again. To me, the picture shows that their design uses either 23 or 32 panels on a base area roughly the size of 2 panels. That would mean a 1050% or 1500% increase in cell surface. Also, I believe that in order to get "20 times" the efficiency (as they claim) they would have to make a tower about 30 panels tall, which would need about 60-120 total panels.


It seems like a good idea but in the final analysis, it will be the cost per watt that is important. Also remember that these tall columns will block sunlight in the back so that if groups of colums are used, the spacing in the East-West direction will have to take this into account. because of the height of these columns, there may be an increase cost in maintenence. if the stacking exceeds one story. I think that this concept might be best applied to windows of of tall buildings if the weight of the units could be kept down and they could be faced to the South but, as the seasons change, their would be variations in the overall efficiency of the units. Again, it is the cost per watt factor that should ultimately prevail and installation as well as maintenence costs would have to be factored in.

Adrian Akau

"20 times greater than traditional fixed flat solar panels with the same base area" so if the solar cells have about 10% efficiency we get here 200% means we get twice more energy then the sun send us - something is wrong here.

Mirko Borich

Solyndra had this problem largely solved with their semi-cylindrical shape didn't they? Which oil or coal company bought their patent rights (to keep it away from consumer rooftops)?


Wow the higher you go the more sunlight you get !

Simple passive tracker will do even more !

Mike MacDonald

It's not meant to work in every single situation. I'm thinking that in certain areas it may be possible, given the larger spaces between towers, to grow crops, or graze animals.

Harriet Russell

jeremytp I am not getting my information from the picture and guessing as to the amount of panel area being used as you are. I got my information from a supplementary article that states exactly what I said in my post. 1.5 to 4 times the solar cell surface area.


Power costs are skyrocketing, the average Joe or Mary, of the alarm clock workers need to know how much it will cost to install solar assist in an average 1500 sq ft house. They need to read what they can understand. Research becomes nothing when the results are in research language.

Harry Featherstone

Fossil Fuel and Nuclear have drawbacks, too. How many billions will a new nuclear plant cost to build, maintain, then refuel, then care for the waste for over 5,000 years. Mankind has only made civilizations for 5,000 years, and here we, are a couple of generations lifetimes being arrogant enough about our comfort that we saddle the human race with caring for our radioactive trash for an equal period of time. Now that seems to me to be far more ridiculous. Coal and Oil create all manner of CO2 and other pollution and we know 10,000 people a year are dying from air pollution plus we have an epidemic of Asthma amongst our children. Plus Autism is now 1 in 110 births in the US where it was 1 in about 10,000. Seems to me the research on using Free Unlimited Clean solar energy is brilliant, while the ideas of persisting with fossil fuel and nuclear are stupid, idiotic and self destructive. We have thousands of satellites in orbit now, so don't tell me we couldn't have simple mirrors in geosynchronous orbits that reflected sunlight down at a solar array on the ground for consistent electrical production 24-7-365. All we lack is the vision to see the folly of more fossil fuel and nuclear. I vote to switch to Solar ASAP.

Donald Eyermann

electric38 here's what happened to Solyndra:

August 31, 2011 – Solyndra LLC, the American manufacturer of innovative cylindrical solar systems for commercial rooftops today announced that global economic and solar industry market conditions have forced the Company to suspend its manufacturing operations. Solyndra intends to file a petition for relief under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code while it evaluates options, including a sale of the business and licensing of its advanced CIGS technology and manufacturing expertise. As a result of the suspension of operations approximately 1,100 full-time and temporary employees are being laid off effective immediately.

The rapidly developing world of solar energy is like the early days of the railways. Yes there will be some millionaires, but most people will lose their shirts.

Doug MacLeod
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