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Community / Public space

Solar panel force fields are on their way

In our most hopeful visions of the future, giant swathes of unused land are covered with solar panels, we’ve figured out how to efficiently channel solar energy into the grid, and everything is wonderful.

A major problem, though, is that the areas ideal for huge solar farms – open plains and deserts in hot countries – also tend to be arid, windy, and filled with sand or dust. These particles stick to the solar panels’ surfaces, making them both less effective and more expensive to maintain 

Enter Yoda a team of researchers at Boston University, who are working on a way to blast away small particles of dirt and sand using electric fields. Their invention operates in two stages: first, the dust, dirt or sand particles are charged, using thin metal strips, a bit like the ones in cars’ rear windows:

Then, thin layers of clear material on the panel’s surface are activated in turn, creating a rippling effect which repels the particles and throws them off the panel’s surface. 

Here’s a sand-covered panel before and after the field is activated:

This video from the University of Boston explains the process in a bit more detail:

The technology would cut down massively on cleaning costs: at the moment, maintenance workers spray panels with water to get rid of dirt, which is no small task in farms containing millions of square feet of solar panels. What’s more, the energy needed to activate the field is pretty low, and wouldn’t deplete the panels’ output significantly.  

The next challenge for the researchers is to find durable, cheap materials to use in a prototype. Malay Mazumder, a member of the team working on the technology, told Fast Company magazine he hoped the first models could be installed in two to three years. 

Images: Boston University.
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