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Dust is no longer an Achilles’ heel for self-cleaning solar panels
by Matt Jansen on August 23, 2010
An abundance of solar energy bombards the Earth every day and that’s a very good thing because it drives the basic functions of life that sustain our existence. Harnessing solar energy for our electrical needs is a natural fit because the process essentially only requires a capture device, which right now typically means solar panels. The problem? Those solar panels can’t continue to collect solar energy if a layer of dust is barricading sunlight from the photovoltaic cells.
It turns out that dust is a pretty universal problem, at least in the Milky Way galaxy, because NASA ran into a similar challenge with trying to use solar panels on Mars for powering rovers and other vehicles. In that instance no human intervention is possible and so scientists developed a self-cleaning technology that repelled dust with a small burst of electric current.
The process works by covering solar panels with clear coat of conducive material. Installed sensors determine when visibility dips too low and automatically push through a small current of electricity. That current repels up to 90% of the problem-causing dust. According to TechCrunch:
Even a little bit [of dust]—one-seventh of an ounce per square yard—can weaken a panel’s power conversion by 40%.
Self-cleaning solar panels has the potential for huge impact in the industry because for companies building huge solar energy farms it’s impractical for them to regularly clean panels through traditional means. Particularly in deserts where water is scarce and the climate is inhospitable.
The energy requirements for the cleaning process are very small and can be drawn from the solar panels with minimal impact to output. As of now, the process isn’t commercialized but it’s only a matter of time with the kind of efficiency gains discussed here. It will be interesting to see how this impacts demand for solar versus wind power.