Tech From Mars: Self-Cleaning Solar Panels

System developed for NASA missions could help burgeoning solar industry.

1 min read
Tech From Mars: Self-Cleaning Solar Panels

Taking a cue from technology initially created for missions to Mars, researchers have invented a self-cleaning system for solar panels that requires no water or mechanical movement, and uses only a tiny fraction of the electricity generated by the panel.

"A dust layer of one-seventh of an ounce per square yard decreases solar power conversion by 40 percent," said Malay Mazumder, PhD, of Boston University, in a press release. "In Arizona, dust is deposited each month at about 4 times that amount. Deposition rates are even higher in the Middle East, Australia, and India."

Compounding such difficulties is the worldwide goal of scaling up solar installations in rapid fashion to make meaningful contributions to power production. If huge projects like the Desertec plants in the Sahara and elsewhere are to become reality -- and an efficient, well-run reality, at that -- solutions to things like dust on panels are needed.

Mazumder's system, developed for NASA in use in Mars missions, involves use of an electrically sensitive material covering solar panels. When dust levels on the surface get too high, an electric charge flows over the panel capable of pushing the dust off the surface and back into the air. According to Mazumder, about 90 percent of the dust is removed within two minutes.

There are other self-cleaning systemsout there, but they generally require water. Such systems might work well for home-based, small solar installations, but to keep the dust off vast arrays in remote desert locations, panels that clean themselves using bits of their own electricity and no water at all could make a huge difference.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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