Solar energy converter creates power and heat for cheap

In tests, the system demonstrated 85.1% efficiency. Researchers project it to have a system levelized cost of 3 cents per kilowatt hour. (Credit: Matthew Escarra/Tulane)

A new hybrid solar energy converter generates electricity and steam with high efficiency and low cost, researchers report.

“Thermal energy consumption is a huge piece of the global energy economy—much larger than electricity use. There has been a rising interest in solar combined heat and power systems to deliver both electricity and process heat for zero-net-energy and greenhouse-gas-free development,” says Matthew Escarra, associate professor of physics and engineering physics at Tulane University.

The hybrid solar energy converter uses an approach that more fully captures the whole spectrum of sunlight. It generates electricity from high efficiency multi-junction solar cells that also redirect infrared rays of sunlight to a thermal receiver, which converts those rays to thermal energy.

The thermal energy can be stored until needed and used to provide heat for a wide range of commercial and industrial uses, such as food processing, chemical production, water treatment, or enhanced oil recovery.

The team reports that the system demonstrated 85.1% efficiency and delivered steam at up to 248°C. They project the system will have a system levelized cost of 3 cents per kilowatt hour.

“We are pleased to have demonstrated high performance field operation of our solar converter,” Escarra says, “and look forward to its ongoing commercial development.”

The paper appears in Cell Reports Physical Science. Additional coauthors are from the University of California, San Diego; San Diego State University; Boeing-Spectrolab; and Otherlab.

Funding for the work came from a US Department of Energy ARPA-E. With follow-on funding from the Louisiana Board of Regents and Reactwell, a local commercialization partner, the team will continue to refine the technology and move towards pilot-scale validation.

Source: Tulane University