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Self-dusting for solar panels?

Posted: 27 Aug 2010     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:solar panels  solar power installations  self-dusting  self-cleaning 

If you find it tedious and tiring to clean and dust your car and things around your home, then imagine the task that companies deploying large-scale solar power installations spreading over an area of 25 to 50 football fields face! Scientists from Massachusetts claim to have found the solution to this problem—self-dusting solar panels—a technology that was developed for space missions to Mars.


Mazumder: To our knowledge, this is the only technology for automatic dust cleaning that doesn't require water or mechanical movement.

In a report at the 240th national meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the scientists described how a self-cleaning coating on the surface of solar cells could increase the efficiency of producing electricity from sunlight and reduce maintenance costs for large-scale solar installations.

"We think our self-cleaning panels used in areas of high dust and particulate pollutant concentrations will highly benefit the systems' solar energy output," study leader, Malay K. Mazumder said. "Our technology can be used in both small- and large-scale photovoltaic systems. To our knowledge, this is the only technology for automatic dust cleaning that doesn't require water or mechanical movement."

Mazumder, who is with Boston University, said the need for that technology is growing with the popularity of solar energy. Use of solar, or photovoltaic, panels increased by 50 per cent from 2003 to 2008, and forecasts suggest a growth rate of at least 25 per cent annually into the future. Fostering the growth, he said, is emphasis on alternative energy sources and society-wide concerns about sustainability (using resources today in ways that do not jeopardise the ability of future generations to meet their needs).

Large-scale solar installations already exist in the United States, Spain, Germany, the Middle East, Australia, and India. These installations usually are located in sun-drenched desert areas where dry weather and winds sweep dust into the air and deposit it onto the surface of solar panel. Just like grime on a household window, that dust reduces the amount of light that can enter the business part of the solar panel, decreasing the amount of electricity produced. Clean water tends to be scarce in these areas, making it expensive to clean the solar panels.

"A dust layer of one-seventh of an ounce per square yard [4.75g per square metre] decreases solar power conversion by 40 per cent," Mazumder explains. "In Arizona, dust is deposited each month at about 4 times that amount. Deposition rates are even higher in the Middle East, Australia, and India."

Working with NASA, Mazumder and his colleagues initially developed the self-cleaning solar panel technology for use in lunar and Mars missions. "Mars of course is a dusty and dry environment," Mazumder said, "and solar panels powering rovers and future manned and robotic missions must not succumb to dust deposition. But neither should the solar panels here on Earth."

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