Optimizing solar panels has long been a challenge for scientists and engineers. Now, however, they can go further towards the ideal with the help of self-curving polymer, which gives solar panels the power of a sunflower.
In a paper published in Nature Nanotechnology, the scientists describe a sunflower-like biomimetic omnidirectional tracker (SunBOT) based on a photosensitive nanomaterial and a thermosensitive material that can point solar panels directly at the source of sunlight. The type of feedback that such a system uses is called photropism.
The discovery was made by the collaborative efforts of researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles and Arizona State University. Its creators suggest that the system can "autonomously and instantaneously detect and track incident light in three-dimensional space at wide ambient temperatures with high precision and rapid response, without an auxiliary power supply or human intervention."
To test the material, the researchers transformed it into a sunflower stem and directed the light at it from different angles, with the stem pointing in the direction of the light. Adding flower-shaped panels to the stem allowed them to create a receptive system that can help maximize solar panels' exposure to sunlight without wasting energy optimizing position.
They explored several different material configurations in the process, such as hydrogel with gold particles and elastomers with light-absorbing paints. The researchers hope that the new technology will make solar power up to four times more effective compared to regular stationary solar panels based on tests of a solar-powered steam generation system. However, under those conditions, heat rather than light will serve as the basis for power generation.
The researchers say that any system that loses performance due to a moving power source could gain efficiency using the newly invented system. The technology can aid in research and practical applications of adaptive optical signal receivers, smart windows, or next-generation space and medical equipment.
In the near future, we may see more advancements in technology with new engineering solutions to better capture solar energy.
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