Solar panels might be the solution to climate change, but they
sure are ugly. RawLemon, a startup founded by
architect André Broessel, wants to change the way we perceive solar
power. Instead of covering roofs and building façades with nasty
photovoltaic cells, he believes we can harness the power of the sun
using giant, water-filled glass spheres embedded in the curtain
walls of skyscrapers and desktop power stations.
The theory underlying RawLemon’s work is that gleaming crystal
globes can concentrate diffused sunlight, or even moonlight, onto a
tiny, hyper-efficient photovoltaic cell. Paired with a dual-motion
tracking system that keeps the sun’s energy focused on the cell
throughout the day, the hope is that these efficiency gains will
make solar power a practical solution in parts of the world where
it’s previously been a non-starter.
Ball lenses are a novelty in solar power, but they are
commonly used as a coupling tool in laser-based applications,
endoscopes, and barcode scanners. Conceptually, the idea is similar
to how many modern solar panel manufacturers employ Fresnel lenses,
angled sheets of plastic that help reorient light rays that don’t
fall directly on the panels, to maximise exposure.
The spherical form catches the eye, but according to Broessel,
much of the value is provided by the patent-pending motion system that keeps light focused on
the solar cell. “The breakthrough for higher efficiencies in solar
applications lies in the unique design of our dual-axis tracking,”
says Broessel. “This really opens up the possibility of having
concentrator solar panels on façades.”
Broessel’s vision is architectural in scale, but in order to
prove out the concept and generate investment he has put the
principle to work in consumer product form. The result is a $149
(£90.89) solar smartphone charger called Beta.ey that
features a minuscule multi-junction solar cell, measuring just a
centimetre square, that can charge your phone one and a half times
per day — completely off the grid.
The unconventional idea to employ ball lenses didn’t come to
Broessel in a classroom or solar energy symposium, but at his
breakfast table. He was working on the design for a new building
and became frustrated when preliminary calculations showed there
wasn’t enough surface area to make green energy work. He noticed
his daughter was playing, putting marbles into her egg cup, which
to most parents would seem like innocent play, but it reminded him
of the Campbell-Stokes Sunlight Recorder.
The Cambell-Stokes Recorder is an obscure astronomical tool that
was popular in the 1850s and recorded the amount of sunlight in a
given area by focusing it through a ball lens which would then burn
a trace into a piece of paper. He realised that if that
concentrated energy could be applied to a solar cell, higher gains
could be achieved in much smaller spaces.
Broessel believes his innovations could lead to massive,
quantifiable gains. “Compared to the maximum theoretical efficiency
ceiling of a silicon cell of 33.7 percent, the concentrator
multi-junction cell has already reached 43 percent efficiency of
its theoretical limit of 86 percent and this is expected to improve
through further research.”
The big question remains — does it work? — and the crystal
ball has not provided a definitive response. Bold claims are
plentiful, and Broessel is quick to point to diagrams or YouTube videos that demonstrate
the concepts, but published scientific data or even rigorous white
papers aren’t readily available on the RawLemon website.
The science seems sound and the entrepreneur couldn’t be more
passionate, but be warned. After all, the federal government lost
hundreds of millions of dollars backing solar panel makers with
flawless credentials and published papers. Risk aside, if you want
to try and shock the power industry, Beta.ey is raising
funds on IndieGoGo until 8 February.
This story originally appeared on Wired.com