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Solar tracking ‘Sun-BOT’ could harvest more light

Solar panels

12 December 2019

Mimicking the way in which sunflowers turn to follow sunlight, researchers have developed a material that can bend and move to face light beams. The material could prove useful in improving the efficiency of light-harvesting products such as solar panels.

Muriel Cozier

Work on an artificial phototrophic system has been carried out at the University of California, Los Angeles, USA, where a research team says that its development can align to the direction of incident light in three dimensions over a broad temperature range.

The team combined a photo responsive nonmaterial with a thermo-responsive polymer. They next created small cylinders out of the resulting hydrogel. The new system is referred to as a sunflower-like biomimetic omnidirectional tracker: SunBOT.

When illuminated light penetrates the cylinder it creates a temperature gradient, becoming hotter on the side facing the light. As the material shrinks on the side facing the light, the cylinder bends towards the light. As the cylinder is homogenous and symmetrical, it will respond to light from any direction. When the light is removed the pillar returns to its upright position.

The researchers say that the pillars can follow a light beam continuously in a wide range of directions, allowing maximum light energy to be harvested. At oblique illumination angles, the system is said to be up to 400% better at harvesting solar energy compared with other smart ‘non-tropistic’ materials.

With further improvements the system could be used for efficient solar power harvesting, such as desalination of sea water, the research team says.

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