104. AstroSolar: Solar energy and science comes together
Imagine a small telescope that observes the sky at night and generates solar electric energy during the day more efficiently than most solar systems available on the market. This is AstroSolar!
Imagine children and adults observing, learning, and dreaming about the universe and other worlds around nearby stars, while at the same time watching and learning how the light from our own star can be used to generate solar energy with the same telescope. Isn’t it cool?
I see this concept as an opportunity to motivate children and adults about science and engineering and to showcase the potential of technology to achieve more sustainable development. In particular, atomized energy generation solutions that aim for smaller personal carbon footprints are often not interesting for people. This project tackles this problem by converting advanced photovoltaic generation in a fun tool, allowing people to learn about science and see direct applications for sustainable energy.
California has a long heritage of astronomical telescopes such as the 5m Hale telescope on Mount Palomar, which was the world’s largest telescope for more than 40 years. The state is also one of the world’s forerunners for promoting high concentration solar energy plants, hosting the largest solar concentrator system, SEGS, built in 1991. Continuing in its efforts in this direction, California is currently building solar energy plants larger than 500MW.
In this context, AstroSolar merges two mature technologies that have already been extensively developed and used in California, astronomy and solar energy, in a single device.
AstroSolar can be built using standard off-the-shelf components used for amateur astronomy and industrial solar energy generation. These components would be combined in a single unit, requiring only small modifications to the telescope.
As a result, the project can be built with a wide range of values depending on the performance desired: An example is to use a 16” telescope that would properly match the size of off-the-shelf components for both applications and would generate more than enough energy to operate the telescope for all night observations. Also, using the aperture of the half-meter telescope would allow observing valuable science cases. A quick budget shows that a basic 16” unit could be built for approximately $10,000 to $15,000 in materials.
The system will be able to quickly switch between day mode, when electricity is generated and night mode, when is possible to observe the sky as a function of the local time. This change is made automatically by a simple optical device that is added to the telescope. During day time a triple-junction solar cell will generate the electricity, and during night time is possible to observe the sky directly on the eye piece or a camera can be used to display the images on a computer or TV. Given the large aperture of the telescope some science projects can be done if a sensitive camera is attached to the telescope. Time consuming observing programs, such as monitoring stars light curves for exoplanet detection, can be implemented during night time.
A basic 16" unit that can be built with off the shelf high concentration photovoltaics components would be able to generate approximately 35W during peak irradiance times, which would more than enough energy to run the system during day and night without any connection to the grid.
Independent of the chosen size of the telescope, the project could be built by engineering students using an opto-mechanical design that I would provide, minimizing manpower costs and maximizing the educational impact of the project.
Why it should be recognized:
The goal of AstroSolar is to serve as an outreach and motivational tool to create awareness in California, and in other places of the world that have clear skies, about its unique assets of abundant solar irradiance and stable climate. Using a project like AstroSolar would help to demonstrate the usefulness of the sky for both astronomical observation and solar energy, while emphasizing the importance of investing in education and motivating people to exploit clean energy and self sustainably. Lastly, this field is relevant to California and the Silicon Valley in particular in terms of demonstrating efficient ways to use solar energy to help with the energy crisis, creating high quality industry jobs, motivating science interest in children and adults and motivate them to ask for clean energy solutions by combining astronomy and energy in a single device.