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MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar Panels

timothy posted about 4 years ago | from the leaping-frogs-would-be-cool dept.

Earth 140

ByronScott writes "Could the next solar panels be in the shapes of origami cranes? They could be if MIT power engineering professor Jeffrey Grossman has his say. Standard flat solar panels are only optimized to capture sunlight at one point of the sun's trajectory — otherwise they need automated tracking systems to follow the sun. But Grossman found that folded solar cell systems could produce constant power throughout the day sans tracking and his new designs are up to two and a half times more efficient per comparative length and width than traditional flat arrays."

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140 comments

Hand made? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31780026)

You can only use your hands for oragami. No tools are allowed.

Re:Hand made? (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31781030)

You can only use your hands for oragami. No tools are allowed.

That reminds me. Why do black women straighten their hair, dye their hair blonde, and wear blue contacts? So black men will date them.

Re:Hand made? (0, Offtopic)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 4 years ago | (#31781132)

Why do white women tan?

Re:Hand made? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31781332)

Why do white women tan?

If white men overwhelmingly preferred the women of another race, you'd have a point. But you don't. Nice try.

I think it's not that black men like white women so much. Have you met many black women? Most look and act like they grew up in boot camp and eat military drills for breakfast. Severe, unforgiving, far too serious, and very demanding compared to anything they're willing to do for you. I think battle-hardened soldiers are more easygoing and have a better sense of humor. And that's the more ordinary black women, not the ghetto bitches who bob their heads side to side while snapping their fingers in everyone's faces. What's with that anyway, don't they realize how stupid it looks?

Most men of any color don't want to put up with that. Why put up with that bullshit when better choices are available? Don't get me wrong, the black women that are sweethearts are really great, but that's rare. Very rare. Even more rare if you exclude the ones who are obese because obesity doesn't do anything for you in terms of attractiveness.

Re:Hand made? (1)

tekrat (242117) | about 4 years ago | (#31781380)

Because it contrasts better against their blonde hair.
Same reason they look better in a little black dress.

Interesting but expensive (4, Interesting)

mcgrew (92797) | about 4 years ago | (#31780060)

It's an interesting, nerdy endeavor, but less practical than automated tracking systems; the expensive part of solar is the panels themselves. From TFA: His new designs are up to two and a half times more efficient per comparative length and width than traditional flat arrays.

If solar cells were free, than this would indeed be more efficient, and if there's limited space thay MAY be more practical.

But space is often limited, and tracking is a main (4, Insightful)

SmallFurryCreature (593017) | about 4 years ago | (#31780200)

But space is often limited, because we don't want to cover the landscape in solar panels. But we can put them in places that are already build-up.

And automated tracking systems need more maintenance then fixed systems, that is why roof top solar panels of various sorts don't tend to track. Better accept the lesser efficiency then risk having to have maintenance done on a roof that without solar panels can go for decades without maintenance.

I just found the shapes puzzling, got to wonder how the sunlight enters that first blue one with the spiral in it. It is an intresting idea, but I wonder if they are usable on a roof, some look like their would be really good at catching the wind (read blowing off).

Re:But space is often limited, and tracking is a m (1)

Fnord666 (889225) | about 4 years ago | (#31780410)

I just found the shapes puzzling, got to wonder how the sunlight enters that first blue one with the spiral in it. It is an intresting idea, but I wonder if they are usable on a roof, some look like their would be really good at catching the wind (read blowing off).

According to TFA, they used genetic algorithms to evolve the design, so there really isn't a good explanation for the shapes. They just happen!

Re:But space is often limited, and tracking is a m (1)

iamhassi (659463) | about 4 years ago | (#31781006)

"But space is often limited, because we don't want to cover the landscape in solar panels."

then form them in pyramids yourself, so now a panel is always facing the sun, but you're buying four panels instead of just one and a cheap light sensing (same sensor in dawn/dusk lights) tracking system

Re:But space is often limited, and tracking is a m (1)

karnal (22275) | about 4 years ago | (#31783032)

Actually, wouldn't you only need 3? Aim the panels so that the "back" is always in the shadow. Of course, I'm biased - being in the northern hemisphere, the sun is either directly overhead in it's highest position or to the south.

Totally infeasible (2, Interesting)

gr8_phk (621180) | about 4 years ago | (#31781740)

He may be getting more light onto the array, but there is a huge problem with this. There is a relationship between voltage and current for cells that provides peak power (max efficiency) at a particular operating point. In other words, by changing the "load" on a cell you change its efficiency. A controller is usually used for a string of cells to keep them operating at peak efficiency. Since a string is normally connected in series, they all have to operate with the same current, and since the peak efficiency point depends on the amount of light hitting the cell you really want the whole chain to have the same amount of light hitting it - hence the entire string should be a PLANAR array. The problem with this origami stuff is that there are many many surfaces getting different amounts of light at all different angles. You'd almost need a controller per cell - not practical any time soon.

He may be gathering more sunlight, but I'd bet he can't actually design something like this that produces more real usable electric power.

Re:Totally infeasible (1)

dgatwood (11270) | about 4 years ago | (#31782376)

If I understand correctly, they act like a constant current source, so couldn't this problem solved by wiring the array of cells in parallel and limiting your current draw to the total current that all the cells provide put together? Or am I missing something?

Failing that, you're using a silicon substrate anyway; I'd think you could simply dope the back side of the silicon and put the controller on the same wafer... or are we talking about large capacitance requirements or something?

let me see you clean the bird poop of that one (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31783280)

oh, folded origami solar panel isn't cleanable? Oh snap

Re:Interesting but expensive (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31780336)

Don't you get it? It's origami. [wikipedia.org] The new panel will be made of paper!

Re:Interesting but expensive (3, Informative)

goombah99 (560566) | about 4 years ago | (#31780520)

It's an interesting, nerdy endeavor, but less practical than automated tracking systems; the expensive part of solar is the panels themselves. From TFA: His new designs are up to two and a half times more efficient per comparative length and width than traditional flat arrays.

If solar cells were free, than this would indeed be more efficient, and if there's limited space thay MAY be more practical.

Exactly!
        consider the simplified case of sun's arc not moving with the seasons. then you could put down the panels in a 90 degree zig-zag. this way all light that is reflected is assured to strike a second panel. this would dramatically increase the efficiency and reduce the variation throughout the day. but it would take 1.4 times as much panels to cover the same area as a flat panel. if you go for the 3D full corner cube then it's 1.7 times as much.

If you were to spread this out you would have 40% more area. this would mean that at peak power you'd get 1.4 times as much, but at obtuse incidence angles were the reflection is high you'd take a loss. the trade off point is when the reflective loss is greater than 40% I think.

another problem with a highly faceted desing is going to be in making the nominally circular cells conform to odd shaped facets, and for mass producing these. If you look at conventional panels you see they cut they often circular cells into half-circles then put these down in a row laternating the directions. this allows them to make mass producable long sections that dont have as much dead space when the components are placed side by side. If you have facets of differenting shapes you have to make eachone differently and the chips may have to be cut differently.

The best part of this idea is the continuous power level however.

Re:Interesting but expensive (3, Interesting)

goombah99 (560566) | about 4 years ago | (#31780656)

Looking at the slides more carefully, I think there's some substantially strange assumptions being made. Notice that he starts from completely random and non-symmetric shapes and these are evolved in genetic algorithms. the results he shows are all highly symmetric. some have 3 C4 rotation axes.

this makes no sense to me. the suns seasonal variation and arcs do not illuminate the ground symmetrically. So it is hard to see why it would evolve to a symmetric structure.

so there have to be some assumptions here the article is not exposing. like enforcement of symmetry.

Re:Interesting but expensive (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31781954)

so there have to be some assumptions here the article is not exposing. like enforcement of symmetry.

It took me a long time to find the real article [aip.org]. I think this paragraph addresses your concerns.

Interestingly, all the GA structures show similar patterns in their shapes, even for different heights. They contain no holes running across the bounding volume, which is necessary to intercept most of the incoming sunlight, and (less intuitively) they all have triangles coinciding with the 12 edges of the bounding box volume, so that they would cast the same shadow on the ground as the open-box. We emphasize that these patterns emerge from randomly generated structures, are not artifacts of the simulations, and are a fingerprint of emergent behavior resulting from the GA calculations.20 The primary shape of the GA structure [Fig. 2a] is a box with its five visible faces caved in toward the midpoint. A simplified, symmetric version of this was constructed, as shown in Fig. 2b; this idealized structure, which we refer to as the "funnel," generates only 0.03% less energy in the day than the original GA output, and therefore contains most key ingredients of the complicated GA structures.

Of course, is is pretty darn funny. Turns out after all this genetic algorithm stuff. A very simple structure is close enough to optimal to make other more complex structures pointless.

Mod parent interesting (1)

turing_m (1030530) | about 4 years ago | (#31783398)

Of course, is is pretty darn funny. Turns out after all this genetic algorithm stuff. A very simple structure is close enough to optimal to make other more complex structures pointless.

While I can't get to your actual link, I suspect that the picture marked (b) in the slashdot linked article is the simple but still very efficient configuration.

In all, it is a cool approach. Even cooler if he can start putting some of the other assumptions (ease of cleaning, cost of manufacturing different shapes of panels, cost of panels, whatever else is relevant) in the fitness function, so that it is actually commercially practical. Ultimately, the best panel that wins for most applications is going to be the lowest in terms of $/Watt. I'm not sure if this has been done yet, I'm guessing not yet as it's harder. However, it's a fait accompli that if you can come up with an accurate fitness function for what you truly want, and use a computer to brute force the search space, the answer, no matter how strange, is the truth. It's a great approach because it throws out all our preconceived ideas about how the solution should look, to let us find the best, and probably counterintuitive, solution. I find that often people dismiss this approach because it seems hard, but once you sit down and actually try it, it can be done. And once done, the computer can examine different configurations far quicker than we can by trial and error.

I would also not be surprised if we see something similar to the final thing in nature. If you've ever seen time lapse photography of plants, they turn their leaves to face the sun. I wouldn't be surprised to find the solution in plants too rigid to be able to track the sun, as they'd need to be pre-configured in the most efficient way. Something like a cactus perhaps.

Re:Interesting but expensive (1)

ThreeGigs (239452) | about 4 years ago | (#31781604)

another problem with a highly faceted desing is going to be in making the nominally circular cells conform to odd shaped facets, and for mass producing these. If you look at conventional panels you see they cut they often circular cells into half-circles then put these down in a row laternating the directions. this allows them to make mass producable long sections that dont have as much dead space when the components are placed side by side

That's because nobody has thought to slice the silicon ingots _lengthwise_ which would yield long (although varying width) rectangular strips, which could be cut into square or rectangular shapes which would fit more densely into square panels.

Re:Interesting but expensive (2, Informative)

godel_56 (1287256) | about 4 years ago | (#31781910)

another problem with a highly faceted desing is going to be in making the nominally circular cells conform to odd shaped facets, and for mass producing these.

That's because nobody has thought to slice the silicon ingots _lengthwise_ which would yield long (although varying width) rectangular strips, which could be cut into square or rectangular shapes which would fit more densely into square panels.

Already been done: see www.sliver.com.au.

Re:Interesting but expensive (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31781912)

yeah, I'm sure no one has thought of this.

Re:Interesting but expensive (2, Informative)

networkBoy (774728) | about 4 years ago | (#31781976)

hopefully that is in jest.
In case it wasn't:
the fabrication technology required balanced wafers for chemical deposition (spin deposition).
If you had odd shaped wafers you would have to come up with an amazing new process. Also, your machines are big enough already, I don't think they want to make bigger machines. Finally, 300mm wafers look to be the largest doable with Si, else they start to break under their own weight. Same reason GaAs tech hasn't gone to 200mm (not sure if it even is at 100mm honestly).
-nB

Re:Interesting but expensive (1)

radtea (464814) | about 4 years ago | (#31780550)

If solar cells were free, than this would indeed be more efficient, and if there's limited space thay MAY be more practical.

Or one could go with concentrators, which have the same effect and don't require any more solar cell surface (in fact they require less.)

I wouldn't be the least surprised if his fancy genetic algorithms came up with something pretty close to the Winston cone, which is pretty much the ideal concentrator shape. Cover the interior of one with semi-reflective solar cells and you'd get considerably greater efficiency per opening area than you'd get with a flat panel.

So scientists of the future take note: your idea doesn't have to be any good, or even very original. But if you "take inspiration from nature" (which engineers have been doing for centuries, so why anyone mentions it is beyond me) and invoke an obscure oriental art that has nothing at all to do with your results other than a superficial resemblance in form, you'll get noticed.

Re:Interesting but expensive (1)

FauxReal (653820) | about 4 years ago | (#31780860)

It's an interesting, nerdy endeavor, but less practical than automated tracking systems; the expensive part of solar is the panels themselves. From TFA: His new designs are up to two and a half times more efficient per comparative length and width than traditional flat arrays.

If solar cells were free, than this would indeed be more efficient, and if there's limited space thay MAY be more practical.

Maybe they're factoring in the cost of making a flat solar cell able to track the sun, you'd need a control system and a motor which both have a monetary and electrical cost to run.

Re:Interesting but expensive (1)

iamhassi (659463) | about 4 years ago | (#31781064)

The motor and light sensor can be run off the panel, and they only move small increments about a dozen times a day

Baloney! (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31781384)

There is a certain amount of sunlight incident on the earth surface, app. 1.2KW/m^2 times the cosine of the suns angle from the normal, on a perfectly clear day.

Just covering the earth surface with solar cells will catch all that power, minus a small amount of extra reflection at low angles.

There is no way to improve total power beyond that.

Only if solar panels are very expensive compared to their supporting structure does it pay to align them in a way that the Sunlight is hitting them normally (at an right angle).

There are three ways to optimize then:

a) fixing them in a position that faces the sun at an right angle during the time the sunlight is strongest, i.e. around noon. For that purpose, you can just mount them at an angle of app. 30 on a south-facing roof

b) actively tracking the sun

c) use mirrors to enlarge the effective respective cross-section of the panels

Before sensationally claiming a 140% improvement over existing configurations, you need state your design objectives. If it is active panel area, then origani-like mirrors may help - but TFA does not mention mirrors

If it is "comparative length and width" of the real estate used, as the article states, there is nothing to improve on flat panel.

I suspect this is just a bad writeup of a theoretical paper showing off some genetic design algorithms - don't hold your breath waiting for these concoctions to appear at your local Home Depot anytime soon!

Re:Interesting but expensive (1)

sxltrex (198448) | about 4 years ago | (#31781560)

Not to mention mass. The more mass the more expensive it is to put in space, and that mass also has to come at the expense of other equipment, supplies, fuel, etc.

Re:Interesting but expensive (1)

Rogerborg (306625) | about 4 years ago | (#31782914)

And note to the easily bamboozled: the significant cost here is energy, not dollars. Will you get and use more energy from these things over the course of their working life than you put in to make them? Are they generators, or just very slow discharge batteries?

Duh (0)

EkriirkE (1075937) | about 4 years ago | (#31780062)

This just in! Having multiple spot lights pointing in different directions spreads light in more places!

[patent pending]

Folding@home? (3, Funny)

tomhudson (43916) | about 4 years ago | (#31780084)

So, we could use these folding panels to power computers folding@home, and the waste heat can warm our houses as a green solution to heating. Just be ready to spend more of that other green folding stuff ...

shaded panels? (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31780136)

i thought that if any portion of the panel was shaded, power is interrupted because current setups are inverter-limited.

Re:shaded panels? (1)

bkr1_2k (237627) | about 4 years ago | (#31780384)

Power isn't interrupted, it's just reduced a little bit. Maybe that's what you meant. In either case, this allows more surfaces to be "collecting" than shading, from the looks of the few images I could see, which would still be a net gain, rather than a loss. It is probably why the efficiency is only 2.5 times as high rather than something like 5 times as high, though.

Useless approximation (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31780172)

Great, this will work wonders for my zero-cost zero-thickness self-intersecting perfectly rigid solar panels. I just hope my spherical vacuum-chickens don't try to nest in it.

Re:Useless approximation (1)

evanbd (210358) | about 4 years ago | (#31781506)

Great, this will work wonders for my zero-cost zero-thickness self-intersecting perfectly rigid solar panels. I just hope my spherical vacuum-chickens don't try to nest in it.

I recently upgraded to the clear spherical vacuum chickens, so I no longer have this problem. I highly recommend them.

RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar Pane (5, Insightful)

rainmouse (1784278) | about 4 years ago | (#31780176)

The Earth is already covered in efficient origami solar panels, its just that regular people call them plants.

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31780282)

You're thinking of fractals, sizzle chest.

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31780290)

Exactly. Expect to see more solar panels designed like plants. There's a reason they evolved (or were created, etc.) that way; it's at least partially to lead to efficient absorption of sunlight.

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (2, Informative)

Rallion (711805) | about 4 years ago | (#31780414)

The linked page actually mentions that the guy who came up with these was inspired by the way trees grow.

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (1)

scorp1us (235526) | about 4 years ago | (#31780648)

Actually what your parent is talking about is the Sunflower, which follows the sun daily, not over the long term. If we could harness the same technique we could have tracking systems that are basically free.

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (1)

Chris Burke (6130) | about 4 years ago | (#31780826)

I don't think they were talking about sunflowers, they said origami, as in shape, not tracking, which is what these new panels are designed to obviate.

Still it's an interesting idea... except we did already adopt the technique in the same sense we adopted the technique of turning sunlight into usable energy. I'm not sure why you think sunflower's tracking ability is free. Any man-made replica is almost certainly not going to be, at least not existing ones. What are we supposed to learn from the sunflower?

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (1)

networkBoy (774728) | about 4 years ago | (#31782008)

tape solar cells to the sunflower?

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31783016)

er... sunflowers don't need electricity, Duh.

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (1)

thepike (1781582) | about 4 years ago | (#31780966)

I don't think they're talking about sunflowers either. The fact that the flowers move doesn't help with gathering sunlight for energy. For that, it'd have to be the green leaf surfaces moving. But plants are not (generally) flat. Sure a given leaf is flat, but the whole tree (or bush or whatever) is this big complicated structure so that basically wherever the sun hits, it hits a part of the plant doing photosynthesis. Tracking can help too, but efficiency is greatly increased by having a more complex surface shape.

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (1)

dgatwood (11270) | about 4 years ago | (#31782568)

Well, that's not entirely true. Some plants' leaves also track the sun (heliotropism) on a daily basis, too, not just flowers. And there's also phototropism that gets more of the plant out from under the shadow cast by other plants, though this is a much slower process.

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (1)

thepike (1781582) | about 4 years ago | (#31782986)

Agreed. But I still think the added complexity of having a strange shape adds more to the efficiency of trees than minor heliotropism of leaves. I mean, on big things (think oak tree) the leaves just get bandied about in the wind and don't do heliotropism, but the fact that they're not a plane makes them catch a lot more light. Phototropism is big too, but I feel we already have a parallel to that given that we put our solar panels on the roof and such in areas without shade.

They should work with Erik Demaine [erikdemaine.org]. He's does origami, he already works at MIT, and he's a genius. It'd be perfect.

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31780418)

Of course those also have automated tracking systems built in.

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (0, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31780524)

How does someone get +5 insightful calling plants "efficient"?

I thought knowledgeable people read this.

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31780956)

Depends on your concept of efficient. I believe plants are below ten percent in the efficiency of converting photons to energy.

However, they are self replicating. I can create a solar "plant" (heh heh) for free with just a few seeds.

Plant a forest, chop down a few trees for fuel. if I manage intelligently, it lasts forever.

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (1)

mcgrew (92797) | about 4 years ago | (#31780688)

All that is old is new again; they used solar powered vehicles for millinea. They were called "horses".

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (1)

iamhassi (659463) | about 4 years ago | (#31781104)

By your bad analogy we're also solar powered... Omg solar powered humans! (patent pending)

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31781962)

By your analogy the entire earth is solar powered. Oh wait, it is.

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (1)

HybridST (894157) | about 4 years ago | (#31781388)

At the risk of potentially melting a server somewhere in Taiwan or somewhere, here's a link to part 1 of a seven-part documentary, "The Private Life of Plants." http://www.megavideo.com/?v=QM24N1FL [megavideo.com] They actually move quite a lot on longer timescales than our meatbag-brains can usually appreciate.

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (1)

Sleepy (4551) | about 4 years ago | (#31781058)

>The Earth is already covered in efficient origami solar panels, its just that regular people call them plants.

That's only half of it.. plants ALSO track the sun so they have both benefits...

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (1)

Monkeedude1212 (1560403) | about 4 years ago | (#31781084)

The Earth is already covered in efficient origami solar panels, its just that regular people call them plants.

It also bothers me how little science has gone into researching plants. We know they help convert Carbon Dioxide back into Oxygen, but we don't know how exactly. The only resources they require to do so naturally occur on Earth, sunlight and water being the big two. And we say there is a looming crisis ahead because we've pumped too much CO2 into the atmosphere.

So, this process has been around since before mankind, that would essentially help to reverse the negative effects we've created, if only we could master it. Then we'd work on making it more efficient to make it practical.
Where is the manhattan project for this?

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31782350)

While we're waiting for the Manahattan Project focused on how to artificially reproduce the effects of plant respiration, how about we just focus on re-forestation?

Failing that, maybe just stop the clear cutting of the existing forests in the rapidly dwindling undeveloped areas of the planet and/or the paving over of every available square inch of land in already urbanized areas.

The issue with CO2 reduction isn't really one of lacking technology (although I'd be the last to advocate against continued R&D) but the will to make the economic sacrifices necessary.

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (1)

Ibiwan (763664) | about 4 years ago | (#31782388)

We know they help convert Carbon Dioxide back into Oxygen, but we don't know how exactly.

I'm not sure what you're talking about -- the exact procedure plants use to take in carbon dioxide, and emit oxygen gas, is mapped out in as much detail as any part of science I know of; it includes the multi-stage fate of individual electrons!

Wikipedia, as usual, provides a high-level overview:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photosynthesis#C4_and_C3_photosynthesis_and_CAM [wikipedia.org]

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (1)

Red Flayer (890720) | about 4 years ago | (#31782662)

It also bothers me how little science has gone into researching plants.

Speak for yourself. We know *exactly* how plants produce O2 and hydrocarbons (more or less) from H2O, CO2, and sunlight. We know the structure of the proteins involved, etc.

It's just ridiculously impractical for us to do it on a large scale -- it's very complex (read: expensive).

Re:RE : MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar P (1)

michael_cain (66650) | about 4 years ago | (#31781454)

The Earth is already covered in efficient origami solar panels, its just that regular people call them plants.

Origami, yes, but not efficient. Plants are typically 3-6% efficient in capturing sunlight and converting to biomass. When you consider that the biomass will have to be dried and then converted to electricity by some means (burned to power a steam generator? run through a direct carbon fuel cell?), the efficiency is much worse than even those figures. A 10% efficient PV panel converting 10% of the sunlight directly to electricity is enormously more efficient than plants.

efficient (1)

zogger (617870) | about 4 years ago | (#31781752)

If you want cost efficiency, though, in terms of human money and time needed for harvesting, etc, plants win. For example, our wood (firewood heat) taken directly off the woodlot. Basically just a perpetual harvest as long as you don't clear cut it. You can't touch it with any other technique short of building entirely underground way below frost or summer heat levels. Cheaper than electricity (any source including nukes), cheaper than propane or natgas, cheaper than fuel oil. And I have built solar thermal collectors as well, it is still cheaper to use firewood for the sheer amount of energy you can get from it, and forget trying to do the same thing with solar PV at anywhere near the cost. I've used and own solar PV a lot, it works..but I wouldn't say it is cheaper, and that's the bottom line on energy, which is the cheapest/easiest and cleanest source, and that combo is "the most efficient". It is way more efficient use of my dollars. Renewable biofuels (some anyway) are at the top there, proly followed by hydropower and geothermal.

I love my solar panels, just spiffy, but they are no replacement for a few bucks a year liquid fuel and a chainsaw and my splitting ax. And the liquid fuels could be biofuel as well for the saw.

Burning firewood is yet our only practical and affordable "fusion" power, and as such is still pretty efficient.

Coal is really energy dense biofuel, but to make it takes so long you might as well not consider it, and it burns nastier than regular firewood. Oil is the same way.

In other words, different techniques and apparatus for different energy needs. You need to look at cost per watt/therm/btu, etc rather than just overall technical efficiencies of conversion.

Re:efficient (1)

h4rr4r (612664) | about 4 years ago | (#31782066)

It is only cheaper if you time is worthless.
I have used wood heat and the time investment in cutting, splitting, lighting and fueling is enormous.

enormous?? (2, Interesting)

zogger (617870) | about 4 years ago | (#31782804)

...maybe I am just better at it....it's certainly not an enormous effort in terms of energy used or my time. I find it very cost effective, plus fun. It has actual value there as well to me. Especially splitting, quite relaxing in a physical fitness/exercise way, I actually look forward to it, same as some people look forward to a gaming session on the computer, or a round of golf.

    And wood, being very renewable and sustainable, is rather a nice way to go. It also has a very good benefit as it insulates you from sudden market shocks. Example, I have personal friends who were using oil heat back during the opec embargoes. All of a sudden, with no notice, their heating bill was *larger* than their mortgage note. With wood, taken off your own site, this isn't a worry. You can be completely unemployed and still not worry about at least heat for you and your family. You don't need to have to come up with the scratch for a very important and expensive utility.

No one single source of energy can be all things to all people, but I certainly find wood heat to be at or near the top of the list as to being efficient in terms of my energy in to energy out, plus efficient in terms of cost. I have a 250 gallon propane tank, sitting full in the backyard, unused for the past three winters now. It is no longer my primary expensive fuel, it is my backup, only to be used in an emergency fuel. So ya, my time is as valuable to me as anyone else values their time, that's why I prefer to work directly for myself, and eliminate as much as that cash middleman as possible, Same way we grow the bulk of our food now, vegetables and meat. Cost effective, helps eliminate bills, helps insulate from market shocks, and I am not going to fire me or offshore me, etc for "enhanced shareholder value". I think of it as practical job insurance as well.

Huh? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31780242)

How is this new? Similar things have been done for at least a decade now.... Oh MIT news, is there anything you cant claim credit for.

Re:Huh? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31780388)

The MIT Media Lab, finding new ways to get the MIT name in the media.

Simulated solar cells of the past (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31780310)

Amazing. The RTS game Total Annihilation (Release Date: August 25, 1997) has wind, solar and hyro for initial power producers until you can ramp up to fusion and even larger scale power power producers.

Even better the solar units were triangle shaped and opened each of its sides to a flower like configuration - so to catch the max amount of sun : )

Folded Solar Cells (4, Funny)

oodaloop (1229816) | about 4 years ago | (#31780426)

Folded Solar Cells
Capturing sunlight all day
It's been done before

...Burma Shave? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31781112)

Folded Solar Cells
Capturing sunlight all day
It's been done before
Burma Shave

Next Gas 284 miles

A Noticeable Trend (2, Insightful)

BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) | about 4 years ago | (#31780430)

So, I've come to the conclusion that anytime anyone claims to be working with "super-, ultra-, or mega-" efficient anything, the product never seems to make it to market. Can we start using some buzzwords that actually mean something, like maybe, "MIT works on practical, efficient solar cells." Or perhaps, "MIT works on deployable, efficient solar cells." Or maybe, "MIT works on manufacturable, efficient solar cells."

Then those announcements might mean something. Wait, you mean to tell me that the project likely isn't practical, deployable, or manufacturable? Oh, well.....

Re:A Noticeable Trend (1)

BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) | about 4 years ago | (#31780510)

Self-response. After RTFA, it seems that the news item, "MIT Making Super Efficient Origami Solar Panels," isn't even remotely correct. Apparently, the professor and students working on this project, have managed to develop a computer program that designs solar panel geometry to maximize solar absorption throughout a day. So, MIT isn't making anything. No new solar cell technology has come of this. Basically, some computer modeling has determined the optimum configuration for something given some input parameters. Wow.

Now, I don't mean to trivialize the educational value of this kind of research for the students working on the project. However, as a news item, this doesn't seem particularly newsworthy at all.

Maybe I am just feeling cynical today though.

underwhelming over-thinking? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31780450)

If you really wanted to catch everything just use a prism attached to some long tube of photocells (cheaper and more efficient).

Two word summary...fractal metamaterial (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31780632)

Increase the surface area infinitely, but at a larger cost of materials.

Waaay too complicated (2, Interesting)

Crash McBang (551190) | about 4 years ago | (#31780728)

A simple cylinder, replicated many many times, would be easier and more reliable to produce:

http://solyndra.com/ [solyndra.com]

Sometimes I think guys from MIT have a degree in over-engineering :-)

What's he measuring? (1)

argent (18001) | about 4 years ago | (#31780900)

Efficiency per unit area?

Efficiency per "swept area"?

Efficiency per surface area?

His construct appears to require more than 2.5 times the material of a flat collector, and generates only about 30% more energy at peak. How does it compare to a flat collector with the same surface area, or to three flat collectors angled for morning, noon, and evening sun?

But It seems like it should have been obvious (1)

uassholes (1179143) | about 4 years ago | (#31781162)

Make solar panels with the individual cells pointing in all directions (except down).
And build in a bunch of mirrors into every little space to reflect the light onto the cells.
HEY: crinkly solar panels instead of flat. With mirrored edges. What the fuck; it's obvious. Picks up light from all directions.
Another good idea: solar cells on rotating disco balls. Finally some use for those pieces of shit.

Tired of hearing about super efficient.. (5, Insightful)

tekrat (242117) | about 4 years ago | (#31781296)

Solar cells that are right around the corner!

Didn't some 8-yr old kid at a science fair demonstrate cells that were 30% more efficient a few months back? And before that there was some researcher who figured out how to make 'em 30% cheaper, and another guy who figured out how to make 'em with paint.

All these stories (heck, if I had the free time, I'd find the Slashdot stories that point to these new miracle products) keep saying that "real soon now", we'll have paint-on, dirt cheap, 110% efficient solar panels that will make so much electrcity, you won't need a $3000 bloom-box to turn natural gas into electricity for pennies a day.

Why, electricity will be so cheap, we won't even have to meter it!

Sure, real soon now. And yet, every time I try and get a quote on mounting a few panels on my roof, the cost is $25,000 and it will take me 30 years to break-even on the electricty. Where's the efficient, cheap PRODUCT that will directly enable ME to put panels on my roof?

How many more YEARS do we have to wait? Or are all these researchers just making press releases and not actually making solar panels? And why aren't solar panels being made?

If all this tech si so f'ing great, you'd think some company, even a Chinese company, would be rushing to make them, even under patent license because they would corner the market if the panels were cheap and more efficient!

Great insight.... (1)

tacokill (531275) | about 4 years ago | (#31781592)

Great post.

It's almost like there is some other force at work (economics) that has to be "just right" for success. Interesting...

Yours is a nice, welcome, and fresh perspective here at /.

Re:Tired of hearing about super efficient.. (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31781898)

as a solar panel researcher, i will outline the problem:

every startup that i work for makes super efficient solar cells and panels. we generate so much energy in the R&D phase that we have to pay people to take it off of our hands. we eventually spend all of our VC paying people to take all that extra energy off our hands and we collapse financially.

my most recent solar cell array is so efficient, it burns down most houses only minutes after installation.

Re:Tired of hearing about super efficient.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31781994)

The 8 year old patented his 30% more efficient cell process. The researcher patented his 30% cheaper cell process. The other guy patented his paint cell process. Etc.

Re:Tired of hearing about super efficient.. (3, Informative)

raygundan (16760) | about 4 years ago | (#31781996)

"Sure, real soon now. And yet, every time I try and get a quote on mounting a few panels on my roof, the cost is $25,000 and it will take me 30 years to break-even on the electricty."

Out of curiosity, where are you located? We did an install last year, and our payback time at the current electric rates is about seven years. If you assume the rates rise at the average 8% per year that they've been doing, it's even quicker. But we're in Arizona, where solar is a no-brainer. The panels have a 25-year *warranty* and a 40-year life is not unreasonable. The inverter will need replacing about once every 12 years, but that's a trivial cost compared to the savings. Even if we're only in the house for another ten years, we'll likely double our investment, before the resale value of the system when we sell the house is even taken into account.

Re:Tired of hearing about super efficient.. (4, Informative)

phantomfive (622387) | about 4 years ago | (#31782544)

A lot of states offer subsidies for installing solar panels. My understanding is that Arizona is one of them. So when you say it cost you $X to install, it didn't really.

He has a point. As soon as solar panels are cheap enough, everyone will be doing them, no legislation needed. And by now they should be, based on the stories we've read.

Re:Tired of hearing about super efficient.. (1)

Surt (22457) | about 4 years ago | (#31782562)

You know, if you have your own solar panels, and a battery, you CAN get off the metered net. Not that you'd want to, because in a lot of places you can get paid for what you're not using. Does 'unmetered' qualify as too cheap to meter?

Re:Tired of hearing about super efficient.. (1)

rollingcalf (605357) | about 4 years ago | (#31782608)

"If all this tech si so f'ing great, you'd think some company, even a Chinese company, would be rushing to make them, even under patent license because they would corner the market if the panels were cheap and more efficient!"

It's unlikely for a super-efficient solar technology to ever make it to market while the oil companies are so big and powerful. They'll buy up promising solar and other alternative energy companies and patents and then bury the technology so it doesn't interfere with their existing business models. That's why you periodically keep reading of cheaper or more efficient solar panels without anything becoming of it.

Better title for Article (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31781882)

"MIT Researchers create computer models of Solar cells that look like Origami"

What is it with all the Slashdot posters lately? Does no one even read or try to comprehend an article before spewing it on the page? Is there that much competition for getting "OMG, 1st Post!" that people can't take a minute to RTFA and see what it actually means? It seems like just about every name I see posting is guilty of this in some degree.

You'd need MORE solar panel area, right? (2, Insightful)

ivi (126837) | about 4 years ago | (#31781884)

If I get this article's point, the cost of the system's solar paneling would rise, since more area would be needed.

Now, the making of solar panels already use up more energy than they're able to produce in their lifetimes...
wny make the energy (& $) cost any greater.

Can the same effect be had, eg, from arranging mirrors to beam sunlight in from different angles, as the sun moves?

Mirrors are far cheaper to make (in energy & $'s)

Re:You'd need MORE solar panel area, right? (1)

raygundan (16760) | about 4 years ago | (#31782056)

"Now, the making of solar panels already use up more energy than they're able to produce in their lifetimes...
wny make the energy (& $) cost any greater."

No, no they don't. Manufacturing energy payback is around two years on average, with variations for manufacturing technique. The panels are typically warranted for 25 years, and will probably last 40 or more. I'd say it's a fairly good return on energy investment.

One Word Alternate To The M.I.T. Hype (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31782724)

China.

Yours In Ulan Bator,
Kilgore Trout

Making cheap cells competitive (1)

Required Snark (1702878) | about 4 years ago | (#31783074)

This could make cheap lower efficiency solar cells economically viable. The technique uses more materials, but the overall cost/efficiency could be better then a flat array of higher price/ performance cells.

Note that he is using artificial evolution for optimization. My guess is that it is simulated annealing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulated_annealing [wikipedia.org] The video shows the random configurations that are being evaluated.

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