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Origami and More: Incredible Solar Panel and Wind Turbine Design

With a plethora of innovative solar panel and turbine designs arriving daily, we look at five of our favorites.

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Energy Digital. To see the newest issue, click here.

Solar panels and wind turbines are perhaps the two most iconic images that come to mind when thinking about renewable energy.

That image, however, is changing.

New and innovative panel designs are being presented–almost daily it would seem–that could change the way we approach deploying renewable infrastructure. From invisible solar panels to flying wind turbines, here are some we think are particularly innovative.

NASA’s Origami Panel

Origami isn’t just for paper anymore.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have created foldable solar panels inspired by the art of Japanese paper folding.

NASA’s Brian Trease, a mechanical engineer, studied abroad in Japan and was initially exposed to the art of origami. From then on, he was hooked.

“I’d be folding subway ticket stubs, baseball game lineups; there’s a picture of me in McDonalds in the city of Kobe holding a big origami crane that I had just folded [out of a hamburger wrapper],” he recalls to Wired. “Now it’s come full circle—I’m doing this as my career.”

Origami seemed to be an excellent solution to one of the biggest challenges NASA faces: how do you make bulky objects needed for space flight light and compact enough to transport? Several years ago, NASA began exploring different ways solar panels could be made more compact. Now, the solution looks to be as simple as folding them.

The project is now a joint collaboration between some unusual partners: engineers at NASA’s JPL, students at Brigham Young University and origami master Robert Lang. The team has developed a prototype 1 cm thick solar array that has the capability to expand from 8.9 feet in diameter to 82 feet.

The material for the panel is called “hannaflex” by the researchers at the JPL. It starts out in a flower-shaped form and folds out into a hexagonal shape.

“This is just begging to be deployed with centrifugal force,” Trease said. “We could have it on spacecraft where we just spin it and that force allows the panels to deploy out to their position.”

Naturally, there is much work to be done on the panel, but the team is taking the concept very seriously. Trease explained that different materials needed to be stress tested and they need to find a way to quickly and effectively unfold the panel.

As cool as the panel may look, its artistic shape is truly beneficial to the future of space flight.

“The public has to know it’s more than just paper folding, it’s more than just this children’s art or something you do in school,” Trease said. “There’s a lot of artistic expertise in understanding the folds, but it’s heavily backed up by math and engineering.”

Transparent Solar Panels

Scientists at Michigan State University have created a solar panel that’s completely transparent, essentially looking like a pane of glass. Efforts to create similar panels have been explored before, but to lesser degrees of success. The plastic was colored, similar to stained glass, and highly inefficient. The coloration also limited the usability of the plastic panels.

“No one wants to sit behind colored glass,” Richard Lunt, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science, said. “It makes for a very colorful environment, like working in a disco. We take an approach where we actually make the luminescent active layer itself transparent.”

The system uses small organic molecules that absorb specific non-visible wavelengths of sunlight.

“We can tune these materials to pick up just the ultraviolet and the near infrared wavelengths that then ‘glow’ at another wavelength in the infrared,” Lunt said. “Because the materials do not absorb or emit light in the visible spectrum, they look exceptionally transparent to the human eye.”

The new material opens up a host of new possibilities for solar panels, allowing them to be better integrated and more prevalent.

“It opens a lot of area to deploy solar energy in a non-intrusive way,” Lunt said. “It can be used on tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader. Ultimately we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there.”

The team is currently working on improving the efficiency of the panels.

Panels of Every Color

Scientists at the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology have developed solar panels of various colors, including white, which can be integrated into a variety of settings.

With better integration into buildings as its mission, the panels can be installed with minimal impact to space and aesthetic. The white panels are particularly important, as the lack of color allows the panels to run cooler and with better efficiency. The various colors available allow for greater versatility in visual design.

With the white panels, there is a common misconception that its reflective nature makes it a bad choice for panel design, though CSEM has solved that issue with its panels.

“It combines a solar cell technology able to convert infrared solar light into electricity and a selective scattering filter, which scatters the whole visible spectrum while transmitting infrared light,” CSEM explains. “Any solar technology based on crystalline silicon can now be used to manufacture white—and colored—modules.”

The ability to change the panel’s color is also important from a design standpoint. CSEM is providing a blank slate can be easily integrated into almost any building design, making going solar easier than ever.

"Our revolutionary technology lets us achieve what was supposed to be impossible: white and colored solar panels with no visible cells or connections,” CSEM said. “It can be applied on top of an existing module or integrated into a new module during assembly, on flat or curved surfaces. We can change the color of all existing panels or create customized looks from scratch. Solar panels can now disappear; they become virtually hidden energy sources."

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s… a Wind Turbine?

A major issue when it comes to renewable energy is space. For island nations, space is critical as there’s a pretty limited amount and it’s generally used for necessities such as agriculture. So, when one looks at a place such as the Hawaiian Islands, it’s difficult to find where a major solar or wind farm could fit in.

Makani, a Google-owned startup, is looking to solve this problem via its flying wind turbines. The company, which is part of the Google X division, is working in Hawaii specifically to develop the turbine as it hopes it will lead to greater renewable energy utilization and reduced cost.

Makani is known for designing and developing lightweight kites that can harness wind energy from a high altitude. The concept is both similar and different to offshore wind or solar farms. While the ultimate goal is the same, the methodology couldn’t be more different.

The project is taking place in a small plot of land on the Big Island just south of Waimea. Smaller prototypes of the wind kite have already been tested, though none of them match the size of the current one.

UK Sales Director for Google Peter Fitzgerald said the costs of renewable energy could be reduced because the turbines don’t require poles like traditional ones would.

“You have to spend a lot of money on steel and concrete to build these massive turbines and you can only do that in about 15 per cent of the world where the wind is fast enough,” he said, adding that the new tethered turbines would get around these restrictions.

The kite flies about 1,000 ft. off the ground and has the generation potential to power 300 homes.

Print Your Own Turbine

With accessibility a large part of the design of these panels and turbines, 3D printing seems like a logical direction for the industry to head towards.

Omni3D has developed a printable wind turbine that can be used on a small scale in the form of an alternative generator. The turbine, called AirEnergy3D, is quite the revolution in terms of accessible renewable energy.

The device can supposedly power something like a laptop or several smaller electronic devices. It could also be used in rural communities and places like India, where energy accessibility is still a difficult proposition. It could also be used for remote recreational purposes, such as camping or other outdoor activities.

Solar has been filling this void, but this 3D printing tech could drastically change that. While wind energy has been mostly relegated to large-scale installations, this could bring wind down to a more consumer-friendly level. Of course, with the further expansion of 3D printing, larger-scale potential certainly exists.

Also interesting is the device’s open-source nature. Those with 3D printing technology and access to the internet could theoretically print their own turbine.

However, the turbine isn’t completely 3D printable. Omni3D provides those who purchase the turbine a basic kit that is comprised of parts that aren’t printable. Still, most parts can be replaced by 3D printed parts.

So, what are the specifics of the turbine?

According to the company’s Kickstarter, the turbine has a generating capacity of 300 W and is extremely durable. They also promote the turbine as useful for storing power. Omni3D is also planning to ship a turbine to Africa for every £2,500 pledged to the Kickstarter campaign. They also want the turbine to be easily replicated.

“We want to influence people, how they think about electricity and the environment,” the company writes. “If we really want a change to happen, we know we can't keep the solutions to ourselves so we decided to make AirEnergy3D open source.”

Omni3D claims the device is easy to assemble—supposedly comparable to constructing a Lego kit. It also has a USB port, so you can plug your phone directly into the turbine. The team is also working on a mounting system in which the turbine can be mounted on various services. Omni3D is also weatherproofing the system and making the device safe.

They’ve already made their Kickstarter backing goal and hope to launch the product in March.

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