Are there ways to increase the amount of energy drawn from solar panels?

People who own solar often inquire how or if panel production can somehow be increased or maximized. One reader came up with this idea: “Could you put some type of magnifying glass and set it at the right distance to increase the heat of the sun and give you more energy production from the solar panels?” Possibly this subscriber had done a bit of reading on the mathematic & military genius of one Archimedes of Syracuse.

While this is an interesting concept and not categorically implausible, we don’t know of anyone who has made such a notion practical yet.* For one: Magnifying glasses increase heat intensity in a focused area, but the photovoltaic process that makes solar marvelous is based on light, not temperature. High heat is not friendly to most building materials, ultimately including solar panels, although they are designed to function well north of three digits Fahrenheit.

Installing a new solar panel system (or modifying an existing one) is not the most advisable DIY project. When it comes to generating electricity via solar technology, this type of project is far less forgiving of mistakes than home improvment endeavours that involve painting, landscaping, or plumbing. Errors can be not only expensive, but exceedingly dangerous.

The speculation raised by our reader makes for good discussion. One circumstance that gives rise to this type of question is having gotten wrong answers about solar’s ‘muscle’ in the past. Sorry to say, there are as many self-proclaimed ‘experts’ in the solar field as there are in any other profession. One business customer (not ours) complained bitterly that after being convinced to do solar on the promise that his electricity bill would disappear, he was furious to find that his monthly expense was not eliminated, but merely offset by 50% or so. The problem? A sales ‘professional’ sold him a system too small to meet his usage. In order to stay within a price frame previously promised but undeliverable, the salesman simply promised impossible performance to get the deal. The business owner was convinced that solar just doesn’t work. A few minutes investigation can confirm that promise and production will rhyme. As in everything, due diligence reigns. While none of us can know everything about everything, a bit of research to prompt the right questions, and dealing with proven professionals is smart. Integrity is a trade skill, too.

As to the plausibility of magnifying glasses magnifying energy output: A few years ago IBM actually experimented with this idea to improve solar energy output. To achieve it, IBM incorporated a liquid metal thermal cooling system onto ordinary PV cells. The cooling system is comprised of liquid indium and gallium placed between the PV cell and a cooling block. When the panel is exposed to sunlight, the cell transfers the heat to the cooling block, lowering temperatures of more than 1,600 degrees Celsius (2900 F) to just 85 degrees (185 F, tolerable for a rooftop), preventing the panel’s meltdown. The cooling system prevented the liquifying of the solar cells. Likely, R & D will continue, but paying lots of super smart guys to work with really fancy tools and materials may make solar magnification a bit cost prohibitive as a household item for a while. Meanwhile,

As far as we know, IBM is not curently manufacturing solar panels commercially, but they appear to be very open to partnering with solar cell manufacturers in order to advance and demonstrate their technology. We’re glad for the discussions and developments on the horizon, and welcome these types of inquiries. While we don’t currently staff a chemical engineer or photovoltaic genetrix, we do have the expertise and integrity to help you take advantage of available technology in order to power your home with sunlight in a cleaner, more affordable way. Put us under the magnifying glass, and we hope you’ll see your way clear to a solar solution.

*Clarification- In the week since this was written, we were made aware of a solar array using magnification technology, right near the Bay’s Dunbarton Bridge. Click here as we stand corrected.

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