In an effort to capture more sunlight, solar power experts and technicians wrack their brains to find the perfect angle for solar panels, sometimes even needing sun-tracking mounting systems to do the job. But now, a group of American scientists took inspiration from heliotropic plants and created a solar power system that can automatically change its positioning, which allows it to capture up to 400% more sunlight compared to traditional solar technology.
Traditional solar panels cannot change their angles to follow the changing direction of sunlight, meaning they cannot keep an optimal perpendicular angle to the sunbeam, so their power generating efficiency is handicapped. Although modern solar tracking systems are capable of angle adjustment, which translate to more power generated, they take up significantly more footprint and cost much more.
Recently, scientists at UCLA came up with a solar tracking system called SunBOT that acts as a sort of power-generating mechanical sunflower by turning and bending itself to track the movement of sunlight. These artificial sunflowers have diameters less than 1 mm, with stems made from thermoresponsive polymers and flowers that are basic solar cells.
Because the stems of the SunBOT are sensitive to both light and heat, once exposed to sunlight, the exposed part of the stem will contract under the heat, which bends the stem in the process and points the “flower” towards the light source. The contracted part of the stem, now under the shade of the “flower”, will gradually cool and stop contracting, therefore stabilizing its angle.
The team published its findings in an article in Nature Nanotechnology, according to which, the SunBOT can operate under any temperature, from subzero to above 70 degrees Celsius, and react automatically and instantly to any light source without human intervention. After extensive testing, these scientists found that compared to systems manufactured from non-bendable, rigid materials, the SunBOT captures up to 400% more sunlight.
The team thinks this technology has a variety of applications including solar harvesters, solar sails, adaptive signal receivers, smart windows, robotics, and guided surgery, in addition to energetic emission detection and tracking with telescopes, radars, and hydrophones.