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Going Solar

May 16, 2012

WHEELWRIGHT: My name is Brian Wheelright, I am a PhD student in optical sciences at the University of Arizona, and I work at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. And what we’re looking at today is part of our solar lab, where were trying to get solar energy to be cheap and competitive with fossil fuels.

For three decades, the Steward mirror lab has been making some of the world’s largest telescope mirrors. Early this year, for example, it was working on four mirrors that, if turned on edge, would each be taller than a two-story building. It’s an enterprise that requires a lot of time, money, and expertise.

A few years ago, lab founder Roger Angel began turning that expertise to a new project: developing a cheaper way to generate solar power.

Technicians heat panes of ordinary window glass until they get soft, then mold them to a curved shape. They then mount the panes on a test stand in an abandoned swimming pool on the University of Arizona campus. The glass reflects sunlight into a special collector — a combination of lenses and solar cells that’s more efficient than most solar power systems today.

The rig borrows from techniques used to build telescopes — but with some differences.

WHEELWRIGHT: In telescope tracking, you have to be precise, and so it’s very expensive. Here, we just want it strong enough so that it survives the wind, but not so strong that it becomes expensive. Kind of a Sun telescope — an energy telescope is what they used to call this.

A larger test project is under construction. Like all telescopes, it’s designed to capture the light of a star — in this case our own star: the Sun.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012


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