IIBM's Solar Sunflower
IBM has worked with Swiss company Airlight Energy to create an advanced solar electricity generator called the High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal (HCPVT) system. The prototype was officially unveiled in Zurich in September 2014.

The system looks like a solar sunflower, shooting 33 feet into the air and topped off with a massive dish consisting of 36 wafer-thin aluminum mirrors and a lattice of tubes carrying coolant throughout the device. What is especially notable about the system is that not only can it produce electricity, but it can also desalinate water for sanitation and drinking purposes.

Featuring an advanced sun tracking system that angles the dish to optimize its solar capacity and an effective hot-water cooling system, the device can convert up to 80 percent of the sun’s radiation into electricity. Each chip produces up to 57 watts and each generator about 12 kilowatts of electricity, up to 20 kilowatts on a sunny day; enough energy to supply numerous homes. In comparison, typical flat panel photovoltaic solar systems, also known as solar panels, have conversion efficiency ratings of only 15 to 20 percent.

Currently approximately 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity and while 2.5 billion people have no access to proper sanitation. What is even more alarming is that the number of people who lack access to proper sanitation is estimated to increase by nine percent each year.

IBM’s solar sunflower can combat both issues by making electricity while also providing clean, drinkable water. The cooling system is particularly useful for the desalination of water. The device utilizes hot water in combination with the desalinators to boil salt water and distill the liquid into potable water. As such, an installation featuring several generators is estimated to be able to provide enough desalinated water to supply an entire town.

Areas of interest for the device include southern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Southwestern part of North America, South America, Japan and Australia. In addition, the system could be used at remote hospitals and medical facilities, and even for commercial purposes such as for hotels, holiday resorts and shopping centers.

Designed to keeps costs low, manufacturing costs will be a third of the cost for similar current solar converters and, because many of the materials will be sourced locally, the device can provide work for local communities. The device is projected to be released by 2017. IBM has announced that it will install the first two devices for free in 2016 and has asked for towns around the globe to submit their names for consideration.

– William Ying

Sources: IBM, The Guardian, Forbes, Computerworld NewScientist
Photo: Flickr