Origami and More: Incredible Solar Panel and Wind Turbine Design
Solar panels and wind turbines are perhaps the two most iconic images that come to mind when thinking about renewable energy.
That image, however, is changing.
New and innovative panel designs are being presented–almost daily it would seem–that could change the way we approach deploying renewable infrastructure. From invisible solar panels to flying wind turbines, here are some we think are particularly innovative.
NASA’s Origami Panel
Origami isn’t just for paper anymore.
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have created foldable solar panels inspired by the art of Japanese paper folding.
NASA’s Brian Trease, a mechanical engineer, studied abroad in Japan and was initially exposed to the art of origami. From then on, he was hooked.
“I’d be folding subway ticket stubs, baseball game lineups; there’s a picture of me in McDonalds in the city of Kobe holding a big origami crane that I had just folded [out of a hamburger wrapper],” he recalls to Wired. “Now it’s come full circle—I’m doing this as my career.”
Origami seemed to be an excellent solution to one of the biggest challenges NASA faces: how do you make bulky objects needed for space flight light and compact enough to transport? Several years ago, NASA began exploring different ways solar panels could be made more compact. Now, the solution looks to be as simple as folding them.
The project is now a joint collaboration between some unusual partners: engineers at NASA’s JPL, students at Brigham Young University and origami master Robert Lang. The team has developed a prototype 1 cm thick solar array that has the capability to expand from 8.9 feet in diameter to 82 feet.
The material for the panel is called “hannaflex” by the researchers at the JPL. It starts out in a flower-shaped form and folds out into a hexagonal shape.
“This is just begging to be deployed with centrifugal force,” Trease said. “We could have it on spacecraft where we just spin it and that force allows the panels to deploy out to their position.”
Naturally, there is much work to be done on the panel, but the team is taking the concept very seriously. Trease explained that different materials needed to be stress tested and they need to find a way to quickly and effectively unfold the panel.
As cool as the panel may look, its artistic shape is truly beneficial to the future of space flight.
“The public has to know it’s more than just paper folding, it’s more than just this children’s art or something you do in school,” Trease said. “There’s a lot of artistic expertise in understanding the folds, but it’s heavily backed up by math and engineering.”
Transparent Solar Panels
Scientists at Michigan State University have created a solar panel that’s completely transparent, essentially looking like a pane of glass. Efforts to create similar panels have been explored before, but to lesser degrees of success. The plastic was colored, similar to stained glass, and highly inefficient. The coloration also limited the usability of the plastic panels.
“No one wants to sit behind colored glass,” Richard Lunt, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science, said. “It makes for a very colorful environment, like working in a disco. We take an approach where we actually make the luminescent active layer itself transparent.”
The system uses small organic molecules that absorb specific non-visible wavelengths of sunlight.
“We can tune these materials to pick up just the ultraviolet and the near infrared wavelengths that then ‘glow’ at another wavelength in the infrared,” Lunt said. “Because the materials do not absorb or emit light in the visible spectrum, they look exceptionally transparent to the human eye.”
The new material opens up a host of new possibilities for solar panels, allowing them to be better integrated and more prevalent.
“It opens a lot of area to deploy solar energy in a non-intrusive way,” Lunt said. “It can be used on tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader. Ultimately we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there.”
The team is currently working on improving the efficiency of the panels.
Panels of Every Color
Scientists at the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology have developed solar panels of various colors, including white, which can be integrated into a variety of settings.
With better integration into buildings as its mission, the panels can be installed with minimal impact to space and aesthetic. The white panels are particularly important, as the lack of color allows the panels to run cooler and with better efficiency. The various colors available allow for greater versatility in visual design.
With the white panels, there is a common misconception that its reflective nature makes it a bad choice for panel design, though CSEM has solved that issue with its panels.
“It combines a solar cell technology able to convert infrared solar light into electricity and a selective scattering filter, which scatters the whole visible spectrum while transmitting infrared light,” CSEM explains. “Any solar technology based on crystalline silicon can now be used to manufacture white—and colored—modules.”
The ability to change the panel’s color is also important from a design standpoint. CSEM is providing a blank slate can be easily integrated into almost any building design, making going solar easier than ever.
"Our revolutionary technology lets us achieve what was supposed to be impossible: white and colored solar panels with no visible cells or connections,” CSEM said. “It can be applied on top of an existing module or integrated into a new module during assembly, on flat or curved surfaces. We can change the color of all existing panels or create customized looks from scratch. Solar panels can now disappear; they become virtually hidden energy sources."
It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s… a Wind Turbine?
A major issue when it comes to renewable energy is space. For island nations, space is critical as there’s a pretty limited amount and it’s generally used for necessities such as agriculture. So, when one looks at a place such as the Hawaiian Islands, it’s difficult to find where a major solar or wind farm could fit in.
Makani, a Google-owned startup, is looking to solve this problem via its flying wind turbines. The company, which is part of the Google X division, is working in Hawaii specifically to develop the turbine as it hopes it will lead to greater renewable energy utilization and reduced cost.
Makani is known for designing and developing lightweight kites that can harness wind energy from a high altitude. The concept is both similar and different to offshore wind or solar farms. While the ultimate goal is the same, the methodology couldn’t be more different.
The project is taking place in a small plot of land on the Big Island just south of Waimea. Smaller prototypes of the wind kite have already been tested, though none of them match the size of the current one.
UK Sales Director for Google Peter Fitzgerald said the costs of renewable energy could be reduced because the turbines don’t require poles like traditional ones would.
“You have to spend a lot of money on steel and concrete to build these massive turbines and you can only do that in about 15 per cent of the world where the wind is fast enough,” he said, adding that the new tethered turbines would get around these restrictions.
The kite flies about 1,000 ft. off the ground and has the generation potential to power 300 homes.
Print Your Own Turbine
With accessibility a large part of the design of these panels and turbines, 3D printing seems like a logical direction for the industry to head towards.
Omni3D has developed a printable wind turbine that can be used on a small scale in the form of an alternative generator. The turbine, called AirEnergy3D, is quite the revolution in terms of accessible renewable energy.
The device can supposedly power something like a laptop or several smaller electronic devices. It could also be used in rural communities and places like India, where energy accessibility is still a difficult proposition. It could also be used for remote recreational purposes, such as camping or other outdoor activities.
Solar has been filling this void, but this 3D printing tech could drastically change that. While wind energy has been mostly relegated to large-scale installations, this could bring wind down to a more consumer-friendly level. Of course, with the further expansion of 3D printing, larger-scale potential certainly exists.
Also interesting is the device’s open-source nature. Those with 3D printing technology and access to the internet could theoretically print their own turbine.
However, the turbine isn’t completely 3D printable. Omni3D provides those who purchase the turbine a basic kit that is comprised of parts that aren’t printable. Still, most parts can be replaced by 3D printed parts.
So, what are the specifics of the turbine?
According to the company’s Kickstarter, the turbine has a generating capacity of 300 W and is extremely durable. They also promote the turbine as useful for storing power. Omni3D is also planning to ship a turbine to Africa for every £2,500 pledged to the Kickstarter campaign. They also want the turbine to be easily replicated.
“We want to influence people, how they think about electricity and the environment,” the company writes. “If we really want a change to happen, we know we can't keep the solutions to ourselves so we decided to make AirEnergy3D open source.”
Omni3D claims the device is easy to assemble—supposedly comparable to constructing a Lego kit. It also has a USB port, so you can plug your phone directly into the turbine. The team is also working on a mounting system in which the turbine can be mounted on various services. Omni3D is also weatherproofing the system and making the device safe.
They’ve already made their Kickstarter backing goal and hope to launch the product in March.
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere