IBM’s Solar Sunflower Delivers Life’s Essentials

Monday, October 6th, 2014
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IBM has unveiled the prototype of a new High Concentration Photovoltaic Thermal (HCPVT) system which in addition to generating usable electricity is also capable of producing clean, potable water.

The device, which was developed by the computing giant in collaboration with Swiss power company Airlight Energy, consists of a nine-metre high concrete tower equipped with a flower-shaped solar generator at its apex, which is covered with a barrage of wafer-thin aluminium photovoltaic cells.

This “sunflower” is capable of following the sun’s movement in order to maximise its exposure to solar radiation and optimise its energy conversion levels. According to its makers, this heightened level of efficiency makes each of the devices capable concentrating the sun’s radiation 2,000 times to  generate 12 kilowatts of electricity – and as much as 20kilowatts of heat on a sunny day – enough energy to supply the needs of several standard households.

In addition to generating renewable energy with heightened levels of efficiency, the HCPVT systems possess the added benefit of using the sun’s power to create potable water.

At the heart of each device is a micro cooling system comprised of a maze of minuscule tubes, through which distilled water circulates to keep the chips at a reasonable temperature. This system ensures that the temperature of the device remains at 90 degrees Celsius, as compared to the 1,000 degrees it would hit in the absence of any form of cooling.

An inevitable byproduct of this cooling system is copious amounts of hot water, to which the HCPVT system applies a desalination process. It boils salt water by pumping it through porous membranes, thus converting it into clean, potable water.

According to the developers of the device at its official launch in Zurich, just a few of these generators operating in tandem would be capable of producing enough clean drinking water for an entire town.

This makes it the ideal installation for remote rural communities in arid parts of Africa, Australia and the Middle East, given that the two invariable dilemmas they face are lack of connection to power grids and scarcity of potable water resources.

In addition to catering to the needs of these communities, the developers of the device see it being used for remote hospitals, accommodation facilities and vacation resorts.

IBM and Airlight Energy have announced that they will donate the first two HCPVT devices and build them free of charge in 2016, soliciting applications from small communities around the world.

The two companies hope to bring an affordable version of the technology to market by 2017.

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