gltAlternative energy is a controversial topic, and it’s just one piece of the larger climate change debate that’s been raging for years. As the scientific evidence for climate change becomes more and more undeniable, however, the development of alternative energy technology is becoming more urgent, and great strides have been made lately. 3D printing has been playing a big role in the advancement of green technology, including wind energy and solar power, and it looks as though it will continue to do so, if a recent Department of Energy grant is any indication.

hp_sunshot_logoThe United States Department of Energy recently allocated $11 million in funding for the research and development of advanced solar power technologies. The grant is part of the SunShot Initiative, a collaborative national project aimed at making solar energy as affordable as traditional energy sources by the end of the decade. Six of the 16 projects receiving funding relate to concentrated solar power (CSP), an energy-harnessing technique that involves the use of thousands of mirrors or lenses to gather large amounts of solar energy and directs it to a central location, where it is transformed into heat and used to power steam turbines or engines, which in turn create a large amount of electricity.

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The current model: a solar energy plant in Ivanpah, California. [Image: Department of Energy]

It’s an effective technique, but there are still several logistical issues. CSP plants operate by mounting thousands of heliostats (the sun-gathering mirrors) onto tracking devices that rotate like sunflowers to follow the sun’s course across the sky, thus optimizing the amount of sunlight gathered. These solar power collectors, unfortunately, are giant heavy things that take up a lot of space, material and money, so the Energy Department has allocated $2.2 million to a partnership between Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Giant Leap Technologies to make CSP more efficient. (Note that GLT notes a $2.2 million, two-year cooperative award, while LLNL notes a $1.75 million allocation.)

The LLNL/GLP project aims to replace the massive steel and concrete sun trackers with less expensive, lightweight and smaller devices using Giant Leap Technologies’ patent-pending Digital Glass technology, which utilizes microfluidics to direct fluids through tiny channels inside solid panels for a refractive effect, “steering” sunlight to a solar receiver. The project would replace the several-ton sun tracker stations with thin, transparent panels requiring only a fraction of the materials needed to manufacture the current models. The surface area required to install the Digital Glass modules would also be about five to ten times smaller than that required for current solar power plants for the same annual energy production, according to GLT.

“At Giant Leap Technologies we believe that the next major advance in solar energy lies in liberating nature’s secrets for the electronic control of sunlight,” said Leo DiDomenico, Giant Leap Technologies CEO and former NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Engineer. “It will provide amazing and previously unimagined ways to deploy low-cost solar power installations and has the potential to set new directions for both the solar thermal and photovoltaic industries for decades to come.”

Logo_LLNLMaking the Digital Glass modules even more efficient is the fact that GLT and LLNL plan to manufacture them with new microfluidic 3D printing techniques. The 3D printing of microfluidics is a new and growing development, with the first commercial microfluidic 3D printer being released only a few months ago. The team plans to further develop the technology with new techniques that will allow the printing of micron-level opto-microfluidic structures to be scaled up and printed at square meter size.

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Microfluidic solar panels. [Image: GLT]

“This is an excellent example of a partnership between industry and the national laboratories to use cutting-edge additive manufacturing techniques to advance innovative energy technology,” said Jeff Roberts, LLNL’s deputy director for Energy and Climate Security.

Giant Leap Technologies has already produced a large-scale, early-stage prototype of the Microfluidic Light Steering (MLS) collector. The funding from the Department of Energy will allow GLT and LLNL to fine-tune the design and reduce the size of the device to about the thickness of a car windshield. To learn more, you can check out a research paper from Giant Leap Technologies entitled “Towards doubling solar harvests using wide-angle, broad-band microfluidic beam steering arrays,” recently published in Optics Express.

Discuss this topic further in the LLNL Receives Grant for Solar 3D forum over at 3DPB.com.

[Sources: LLNLGLT / Images: GLT]

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