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Technology
Solar Dish Generates Power… And Fresh Water
April 28, 2013
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IBM_solar_dish.jpg

It looks a little different from the solar panels we're used to seeing - and it works a little differently, too.

This solar energy-capturing dish produces electricity, just like a standard solar array. But it also includes something extra: a system that turns salt water into potable fresh water.

It works like this: the dish is covered with small mirrors that concentrate sunlight and reflect it onto receivers. Every receiver contains hundreds of small energy-converting chips, which turn the light into electricity.

But as you can imagine, the dish gets very hot, very quickly in the sun. To keep things from melting, the dish has a built-in liquid coolant system which absorbs heat from the receivers.

Rather than waste that heat, the system uses it to evaporate salt water in the desalination part of the machine, leaving behind clear, potable water.

One square metre's worth of receivers can make about 30 to 40 litres of fresh water in a sunny eight-hour day, according to IBM.

Another benefit of the dish is that it's relatively cheap to build: unlike flat solar panels, the reflecting parabola of the dish doesn't require expensive materials.

The hope is that this relative affordability will allow the technology to compete with coal power, according to PopSci.

Researcher Andrea Pedretti says in an IBM press release, "the design of the system is elegantly simple: "We replace expensive steel and glass with low cost concrete and simple pressurized metalized foils."

Check out this video about the dish from IBMSocialMedia, with IBM Zurich research scientist Bruno Michel:

Solar initiatives like these are part of a trend in Europe to move away from nuclear power and Michel says "sun is the most abundant energy that we have."

Another surprising solar invention took flight recently - literally.

This Swiss-built plane is powered by the sun: its wings are covered with 12,000 solar cells.

While it's not the first solar-powered jet, Solar Impulse is certainly the most ambitious, and owns several records including "absolute height reached in a solar-powered jet" (9,235 metres) and "flight duration" (more than 26 hours).

Solar_Impulse_San_Francisco.jpg

The jet has roughly the same amount of power the Wright brothers had available to them back in 1903. And like the Wright brothers' early creations, Solar Impulse is not ready to carry passengers just yet.

Although it has the same wingspan as a 747, it only weighs as much as a sedan, and cruises at a pretty slow 70 km/h. It also requires good weather to stay in the sky, and there's only room on board for one person: the pilot.

According to co-designer Bertrand Piccard, channeling media guru Marshall McLuhan, "Our airplane is not designed to carry passengers, but to carry a message."

A recent test flight over the Bay Area lasted 16 hours (and continued long after the sun had set). And that's just the beginning: there are plans in the works to fly the Solar Impulse around the world in 2015.

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