Thinking Tech

Self-cleaning solar panels hail from Mars

Self-cleaning solar panels hail from Mars

Posting in Environment

For solar panels, dust is a bigger problem than you'd ever have thought. This might be a solution.

You might not think of dust as a major problem facing the adoption of solar power, but it is. Dust accumulating on top of solar panels can block sunlight and reduce the efficiency of those panels by up to 80%. Typically, private owners of solar panels give them a good scrub with soap and water on a regular basis, but for large solar farms, that's just not possible.

That's due in part to the simple logistics of manually cleaning acres upon acres of solar panels, but it's also due to the problem of location. Many solar farms are located in deserts, which have the benefit of wide-open spaces with lots of sunlight, but the drawback of not being near water. And without water, scrubbing the panels manually becomes a moot point.

Malay Mazumder, a Boston University researcher, teamed up with NASA to solve this problem for the Mars rovers that rely on solar panels for power. His solution, reported by the BBC, meets most of the requirements for terrestrial panels as well--it does not require water, and removes as much as 90% of the dust covering a panel in under two minutes. So how does it work?

The self-cleaning technology requires a coat of electrically sensitive material over each panel. Those panels are equipped with sensors that can feel when dust reaches a critical level, and sends out an electrical charge in response. That charge creates a wave across the panel (through the electrical coating) that repels dust very quickly and thoroughly--without water.

The technology isn't even that far off--Mazumder says it could be ready within one year for commercial use. That could be a godsend to those wanting to build massive solar farms in the desert. Less effort, less water, and more efficiency--that's good news all around.

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Dan Nosowitz

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dan Nosowitz has written for Popular Science, Fast Company and Gizmodo. He holds a degree from McGill University in Canada. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure