Solar energy has long been considered a clean, wise and sustainable way to help the world meet its constantly increasing energy needs. However, experts are always on the lookout for more efficient and less expensive systems. The American Department of Energy has recently had its Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E) conference, showcasing the latest technological developments in the field of renewable energy. Some of these forward-thinking projects could potentially be developed and used internationally to supply low-cost power. One of the most exciting concepts highlighted at the summit was the Solar Vortex. Find out what this cutting-edge yet simple project is, how it works, and the positive impact it could have on solar energy.
What is the Solar Vortex?
The Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) has developed an ingenious system of generating energy which they call the Solar Vortex. They claim that their invention could supply energy at 25% less cost than regular wind power systems, and that it would be 60% less expensive to run than conventional solar power methods.
How does it work?
The Solar Vortex concept was inspired by dust devils, or miniature twister systems that can develop in hot, dry, dusty places. The elements that combine to make the vortex are the contrast between the extremely hot ground and the cooler air higher up. There is a narrow layer of air by the earth which heats up, and because it is not as dense as the cooler air above, it rises. The uneven surface heating causes the warm air to ascend in bubbles. The cool air moves down and around to fill in the spaces left by the rising air, and it begins to turn and twist into a wind vortex. With the lower pressure of the air at the centre of the vortex, more air is drawn in and it continues to spiral.
The miniature prototype displayed at the ARPA-E exhibition by Georgia Tech, is a short, squat cylinder which rests on a dark, heat-absorbing surface. Almost too hot to touch, the temperature is set to approximately 47 degrees Celcius, or 116 degrees Fahrenheit. A set of angled vanes all around the inside edges of the cylinder direct the hot air up into a spiral as it rises, creating a vortex. Fan blades above are moved by the air, and as they turn a generator is activated, creating electricity.
Georgia Tech plans to develop their site in Arizona by building a 50 kilowatt version between now and 2015. A commercial version could possibly be ten metres wide, with a height of only two or three metres.
Benefits of the Solar Vortex
Areas of the world with excess amounts of heat but little wind could benefit from this technology. Another main attraction is the probable low cost of the machine, and the potentially simple maintenance required. Compared to the hassle of maintaining extremely tall, expensive wind turbines, the Solar Vortex is easier to manage because it is low to the ground and is a relatively straightforward design.
The potential of the innovative Solar Vortex system is fascinating to consider, especially if production costs are able to be kept low, and the energy it produces is efficient and cheap. With approximately two years to wait until the first real Solar Vortex is up and running, it will be interesting to see if other engineers and scientists jump on the bandwagon and consider the possibilities of this concept. Watch this space to see if this technology can really turn into a significant and viable source of energy for our power-hungry world.