For use in the next crop of solar power systems, an electrical and computer engineer has been inspired by the natural engineering of the sunflower. The sunflower's slow rotation from east to west during the course of a sunny day seeking out as much sunlight as possible has caught his attention.
Unlike other "active" solar systems that track the sun's position with GPS and reposition panels with motors, Hongrui Jiang's concept inspired by passive heliotropism seen in sunflowers, leverages the properties of unique materials in concert to create a passive method of re-orienting solar panels in the direction of the most direct sunlight.
His design employs a combination of liquid crystalline elastomer (LCE), which goes through a phase change and contracts in the presence of heat, with carbon nanotubes, which can absorb a wide range of light wavelengths.
"Carbon nanotubes have a very wide range of absorption, visible light all the way to infrared," Jiang said.
"That is something we can take advantage of, since it is possible to use sunlight to drive it directly," he said.
Direct sunlight hits a mirror beneath the solar panel, focused onto one of multiple actuators composed of LCE laced with carbon nanotubes. The carbon nanotubes heat up as they absorb light, and the heat differential between the environment and inside the actuator causes the LCE to shrink.
This causes the entire assembly to bow in the direction of the strongest sunlight. As the sun moves across the sky, the actuators will cool and re-expand, and new ones will shrink, re-positioning the panel over the 180 degrees of sky that the sun covers in the course of the day.
"The idea is that wherever the sun goes, it will follow," he said.
In Jiang's tests, the system improved the efficiency of solar panels by 10 percent, an enormous increase considering material improvements in the solar panels themselves only net increases of a few percent on average. And a passive system means there are no motors and circuits to eat into increased energy harvest.
"The whole point of solar tracking is to increase the electricity output of the system," Jiang said.
The study has been published in Advanced Functional Materials and recently highlighted in Nature.