As regular readers will know, we cover more than our fair share of breakthroughs promising next-generation super-efficient solar cells. Everything from growing photovoltaic crystals, applying special coatings or using carbon nanotubes teases us with cheaper, more efficient solar energy - eventually. In this latest news, scientists are using current technology in a new type of concentrating array which they say is four times more efficient and three times cheaper than current solar cells.

The technology was originally developed at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) and will be commercially produced by a spinoff company called Technique Solar. Each solar module consists of nine "troughs" that feature a concentrating acrylic lens and reflective walls to focus the sun’s rays onto a strip of photovoltaic (PV) cells, which enables the number of PV cells to be cut by 75 percent. The PV cells are used to generate electricity, while a heat exchanger located under them is used to generate heat for circulating water and storage tanks for a hot water system. Additionally, to maximize the sun’s rays the array has a motor drive mechanism with tracking sensor to follow the sun.

The company says its Concentrated Universal Energy Solar System (CUESS) makes it possible to deliver solar energy more economically and more efficiently than other current forms of solar energy generation. Each 3.5 square meter array apparently produces a total of around 2.1-kW of power, while a standard PV panel would need to be around 12-14 square meters to produce around the same amount. Technique Solar says its panels can supply heat load (hot water) and electrical energy at one quarter of the energy costs of conventional solar energy systems.

It must be highlighted however that these figures refer to total energy output – which combines both the electrical and heat power – not just electrical output, as is the case with standard solar cells. The standard CUESS panel produces 400 watts of electrical power and 1700 watts of heat power for a total of 2100 watts. It is this combination of heat and electrical energy output that allows the developers of the CUESS technology that allows them to claim a lifting of efficiency from around 18 percent for standard solar panels to over 50 percent.

Technique Solar has teamed with Magna Cosma, one of the world’s largest car component manufacturers boasting 242 manufacturing facilities spread over 25 countries. It will build 10 pre-production models in North America for testing and demonstrations at various sites around the world from June 2010 to obtain the final commercial accreditation and rating.

Technique Solar doesn’t plan to sell its system as an off the shelf purchase to consumers. Rather it intends the modules to be rolled out as infrastructure complementing existing energy supplies from the grid. The modules will be owned/leased by a Power Utility (or in some instances/countries by local councils, government or large corporations) who will then arrange for installation onto residential, commercial, industrial as well as school premises to complement or substitute existing energy supply.