But a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have taken a different tack. Instead of developing new materials, they simply rearranged the solar panels we already have to boost power output up to 20 times.
Flat panels are usually positioned to reap the most benefit when the sun is high in the sky and at peak intensity. In the new design, the flat panels are stacked in a 3-D configuration on a tower to also absorb sunlight on cloudy days or when the sun is low in the sky.
The research team developed an algorithm that takes into account environmental conditions including weather, latitude, and season. They then tested out several of the models on the roof, collecting data to confirm which arrangement worked best for MIT's location in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Part of the beauty of the algorithm is that the same one could be tested in other regions to determine the most efficient panel positioning for other parts of the world.
However, increasing energy efficiency wasn't the researchers' original intention: They wanted to develop a way to easily store, ship, and assemble solar panel towers. When they went to test the panels on the roof, they were stressed because they didn't have a single sunny day in two weeks. It wasn't until they looked over their cloudy day data that they realized their model showed 2- to 20-fold increases in power output compared to conventional flat panels.
And the towers themselves, to me at least, are also far better looking than the flat panels -- like little sculptures. I'd be happy to throw a few of those in my yard for energy and art's sake.
The research was published in Energy and Environmental Science.
Image: MIT/Allegra Boverman