An Astronomer’s Solution to Global Warming

The technology developed for telescopes, it turns out, can harness solar power

Astronomer Roger Angel is trying to harness the power of the sun with new technology developed for telescopes. The solar tracker pictured currently makes 2 kW of electric power. (Courtesy of the University of Arizona)

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With the help of the silica ball, sunlight that falls on the mirror can be focused onto an area of cells one one-thousandth the size of the mirror, and the cost of the cells becomes one-tenth as much per watt generated compared with solar panels that do not employ Angel’s technology.

Angel’s goal is to create “utility-scale” solar electricity at a price that competes with fossil fuels, something that doesn't exist today. “I think what we’re doing has a good chance. The architecture we have developed over the last few years is a new approach and is aimed specifically at getting to the low cost.”

Part of its cost–effectiveness stems from Angel’s ability to draw on manufacturing processes that are already in place. His patented and patent-pending system (covering the assembly, optics, and use of the PV cells) is simple enough that it can be manufactured in high volume, and he and a team of scientists and graduate students at the University of Arizona are researching ways to make the mass production methods even more streamlined.

Even the setting for his research and development helps cut costs. The prototype for Angel’s jungle-gym-like assembly was constructed in a deserted swimming pool behind a gym on the UA campus, a spot that once housed a satellite dish for a Tucson TV station. “This particular space has a perfect view of southern sky from dawn to dusk and is a two-minute walk from my office,” he says, and the region gets about 350 days of sunshine per year. Another benefit of being in Arizona is that “we are two to three hours behind the East Coast, which means the sun is still shining in Arizona at the time of peak demand in the East,” he says.

Angel was partly driven to develop solar power because of something he observed on Earth. His home is near a river, and he has watched the waterway decline over time. “The water table has gone down by three feet since I have been in the house,” he says. “The degradation of the river is something I see real time in front of my eyes due to overpopulation. I’ve reconciled that my beautiful river will dry up, but I don’t want to be reconciled to a planet that is doomed a miserable fate like that.”

Alaina G. Levine is a science writer based in Tucson, Arizona.


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