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'Martian technology' to keep solar panels dust-free

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August 22, 2010

Solar power plant at Nellis Air Force Base

Solar power plant at Nellis Air Force Base

Deserts are the obvious locations for solar power plants. The land is cheap and the sunshine is plentiful. Unfortunately so too is the dust, dirt and wind that leads to dirty solar panels that can take a big hit in efficiency. Sending a guy around with a squeegee in the sweltering heat doesn’t sound like the best job in the world and self-cleaning systems that rely on water aren’t always an option in areas where clean water is hard to come by. Another solution is self-dusting solar panels that are cleaned by an electric charge provided by the solar panels themselves. The self-dusting solar panels are based on technology developed for another dry and dusty environment – Mars.

The technology involves placing a transparent, electrically sensitive material deposited on glass or a transparent plastic sheet covering the panels. Sensors monitor dust levels on the surface of the panel and energize the material when dust concentration reaches a critical level. The electric charge sends a dust-repelling wave cascading over the surface of the material, lifting away the dust and transporting it off of the screen's edges.

Within two minutes, the process removes about 90 percent of the dust deposited on the panels and requires only a small amount of electricity generated by the panel for cleaning purposes.

"We think our self-cleaning panels used in areas of high dust and particulate pollutant concentrations will highly benefit the systems' solar energy output," study leader Malay K. Mazumder, Ph.D. said. "A dust layer of one-seventh of an ounce per square yard decreases solar power conversion by 40 percent," Mazumder explains. "In Arizona, dust is deposited each month at about 4 times that amount. Deposition rates are even higher in the Middle East, Australia, and India."

Mazumder, who is with Boston University, said the need for that technology is growing with the popularity of solar energy. Use of solar, or photovoltaic, panels increased by 50 percent from 2003 to 2008, and forecasts suggest a growth rate of at least 25 percent annually into the future.

"Our technology can be used in both small- and large-scale photovoltaic systems. To our knowledge, this is the only technology for automatic dust cleaning that doesn't require water or mechanical movement."

Working with NASA, Mazumder and colleagues initially developed the self-cleaning solar panel technology for use in lunar and Mars missions. "Mars of course is a dusty and dry environment," Mazumder said, "and solar panels powering rovers and future manned and robotic missions must not succumb to dust deposition. But neither should the solar panels here on Earth."

The current market size for solar panels is about $24 billion, Mazumder said. "Less than 0.04 percent of global energy production is derived from solar panels, but if only four percent of the world's deserts were dedicated to solar power harvesting, our energy needs could be completely met worldwide. This self-cleaning technology can play an important role."

The team described the benefits of the self-cleaning coating in a report at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

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
5 Comments

Good idea except for putting it in the desert. There are millions of roofs out there that could be used to mount solar panels and eliminate the need to transfer the power hundreds of miles.

Max Lang
23rd August, 2010 @ 10:13 am PDT

This is pure folly. I have lived with solar energy for 30 years and can tell you that unless there is zero humidity, like on Mars, any electrostatic field will be useless in cleaning solar panels. You have to understand the natural dynamics of the solar panel surface to understand why. During the day sunlight falls on the panels, warming them up. At night the panels rapidly cool and ANY humidity in the air results in condensation (drops of water on the surface) which traps any airborne dust, dirt, pollen, microbes, fungus, and air pollution in a sticky film. When the daylight warms the panel again this film cooks onto the surface creating perfect opportunities for microbes to colonize the sticky film which along with the contribution of bird-droppings, leaf-litter and other nutrient rich ingredients creates what is known as a bio-film. If this is periodically cleaned with a soft dry brush and rinsed with a small amount of fresh water the bio-film can be prevented from impairing the solar energy from penetrating to the working elements of the panels. Anything else, I am afraid is wishful thinking, unless that is you are willing to move to Mars. If you want the FACTS about using solar energy please visit my website at http://www.lightontheearth.org/ I am trying to provide the world with factual information about using solar so we can avoid the collapse of the planetary eco-system.

Jonathan Cole
23rd August, 2010 @ 12:12 pm PDT

Keeping anything that relies on light clean is significant and there are criticisms here which I am not qualified to argue with. What I do know is that all these developments take us a few steps forward in creating a sustainable lifetsyle.

I edit a website (http://www.realityGeen.co.uk) which is aimed at individuals who consider sustainable living important. I will include a link to this page under our solar power section

Chris Floate
24th August, 2010 @ 02:15 am PDT

A very good existing technology available now and used in contamination resistance on PV panel front surfaces is a very low surface energy fluoropolymer top coating over anti-reflective magnesium fluoride optical coating. You'll recognize this as the fingerprint proof coating applied to better quality anti-reflective eyeglass lens coatings. Also known as hydrophobic or oleophobic coatings.

These coatings make already robust anti-reflective coatings (which significantly improve PV efficiency) even more durable. Fluoropolymer coatings are transparent, low-cost, and a mature technology. Effectively, just about nothing sticks to it. Even crow droppings or insults.

Derby OD
29th August, 2010 @ 07:09 pm PDT

these r awesum.

i'm also tryin to design a solar panel.

but initially i'm tryin to make it work manually.

Facebook User
3rd October, 2010 @ 10:25 pm PDT
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