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New Solar Innovation Takes Sunflower Inspiration

08 Nov 10:00 by Steve Walia

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As solar cells have become progressively cheaper, the solar power industry has been able to experience a boom. But until now, one of the main issues is that they cannot move and adjust to the movement of the sun. As a result, the sun's rays often hit the cells at an angle, meaning that they cannot operate at maximum capacity.

However, this problem may be soon solved by a new polymer inspired by sunflowers that naturally love the light. The new polymer has been discussed in Nature Nanotechnology, the science journal. It is able to follow the sun as it tracks across the sky in the way that plants do - it’s called phototropism.

The polymer was invented at the University of California by Xiaohshi Qian, and it has been named 'SunBOT', or the sunflower-like biomimetic omni-directional tracker!

Every stem is around a millimetre across and packed with nanomaterial which can convert light into heat. As light hits the stem, this nanomaterial warms and shrinks, bending the points of the stem towards the source of light and allowing it to move.

The research team found that the SunBOT polymer was able to generate 400% more heat power than materials that were unable to follow the source of light. The hope is that the technology could ultimately be integrated with solar cells in order to boost solar technology.

Existing solar cells can only capture around a quarter of available sunlight. However, SunBOTS could increase this absorption to around 90%. As well as improving solar technology, there may be other applications possible with the technology too, such as smart windows, guided surgery, enhanced solar harvesters and intelligent power generation such as biofuels. The team also think that it could be used to improve telescope and radar tracking.