Optimizing solar panels has long been a challenge for scientists and engineers. Now, however, they can reach further towards the ideal with the help of self-bending polymer, which gives solar panels the power of a sunflower.
In a paper published in Nature Nanotechnology scientists describe a sunflower-like biomimetic omnidirectional tracker (SunBOT) based on a photo-responsive nanomaterial and a thermo-responsive material that can point the solar panels directly at the source of sunlight. The type of feedback such system uses is called photropism.
The discovery was made by the collaborative efforts of researchers from California University in Los Angeles and Arizona State University. Its makers suggest that the system can “autonomously and instantaneously detect and track incident light in three-dimensional space at broad ambient temperatures with high accuracy and fast response, without an auxiliary power supply or human intervention.”
To test the material, the researchers made it into a shape of a sunflower stem and directed light at it from different angles, having the stem point in the direction of light. Adding panels in the form of a flower to the stem allowed them to create a responsive system that can help maximize the exposure of solar panels to sunlight while not spending energy on optimizing the position.
They explored a number of different material configurations in the process, such as hydrogel with particles of gold and elastomers with light-absorbing paints. The researchers expect the new technology to make solar energy up to four times more effective as compared to the regular stationary solar panels based on testing a solar-powered vapor generation system. However, under those conditions, the heat rather than light will serve as a basis for the generation of energy.
The researchers say that any system that loses in performance due to a moving source of energy could gain in efficiency using the newly invented system. The technology can help in research and practical applications of adaptive receivers of optical signals, smart windows or next-generation space and medical equipment.
In the near future we may see further advances in technology with new engineering solutions for better capturing solar energy.