Lessons Learned on Mars Helps the Cleaning Solar Panels Here on Earth

Scientists have discovered a technology that solves the problem of dust accumulation on the surface of solar panels, overcoming a key obstacle in harvesting electricity from the sun, namely self cleaning solar panels – and it came straight from Mars.

The Problem is Dust

The benefits of solar energy are well-known, but what’s rarely mentioned is its nemesis: dust. Some of the best places to collect solar energy are also some of the dustiest on Earth and beyond, a quandary that leads to inefficiencies in how well the cells are able to convert strong sunlight into renewable electricity.

Even a little bit of dust, for example one-seventh of an ounce per square yard (= 4 grams / square meter) —can weaken a panel’s power conversion by 40%.

To put this in perspective, dust deposition in Arizona is about 17 grams per square meter per month, and the situation is worse in many other solar-friendly sites, including the Middle East, Australia and India. Mazumder, who led the study, presented the results at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Large-scale solar PV installations, such as those found in the United States, Spain, Germany, the Middle East, Australia and India are almost ideally located in sunny desert areas. But dry weather and winds sweep dust into the air and deposit it on the surfaces of the PV panels.

Using self cleaning solar panels, especially in areas where water is scarce could overcome one of the significant challenges to achieving optimum results from the solar installation.

The Solution: Use Mars Technology

The self-cleaning technology was developed by Boston University professor Malay K. Mazumder and his colleagues, in association with the National Aeronautics and Space Association, and was originally intended for use in rovers and other machines sent to space missions to the moon and to Mars.

The technology involves the deposition of a transparent, electrically sensitive material on glass or on a transparent plastic sheet that cover the panels. Sensors monitor dust levels on the surface of the panel and energize the material when dust concentration reaches a critical level.

The electric charge sends a dust-repelling wave cascading over the surface of the material, lifting away the dust and transporting it off of the screen's edges.

Mr. Mazumder said that within two minutes, the process removes about 90 percent of dust on a solar panel. The mechanism reportedly requires only a small amount of the electricity generated by the panel for it to work.

"Mars of course is a dusty and dry environment," explained Mr. Mazumder, "and solar panels powering rovers and future manned and robotic missions must not succumb to dust deposition. But neither should the solar panels here on earth."

The Application

The ability for continuously cleaning solar panels contributed to the longer than expected usefulness of the Mars rovers, and is also expected to help large Utility and Commercial PV projects to increase electrical production over their projected life times.

"Our technology can be used in both small and large-scale photovoltaic systems. To our knowledge, this is the only technology for automatic dust cleaning that doesn't require water or mechanical movement," said Mr. Mazumder.

Coating the surface of solar cells could increase their efficiency and reduce maintenance costs, especially for large-scale installations. The installation is relatively simple, and doesn’t require any mechanical movement or water to dust the panels.

Self cleaning solar panels would be especially effective in large installations, which are not only enormous, but often remote. The desert environments where many of these installations reside often challenge the panels with dust storms and little rain.

Currently, only about 4 percent of the world’s deserts are used in solar power harvesting. Conventional methods of cleaning solar panels usually involve large amounts of water which is costly and scarce in such dry areas.

The researchers hope the use of the self-dusting technology (which has yet to be commercialized) will not only improve the performance of existing solar farms in desert areas but will open up more of them for solar power plants.

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