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M.I.T. proposes three-dimensional solar panel arrangement

By building solar cells arranged like cubes to give them a three-dimensional look, a team of M.I.T. researchers generated solar power output ranging from double to more than 20 times that of fixed flat panels having the same base area.

The M.I.T. team first used a computer algorithm to explore possible configurations, and developed an analytic software that can test any given configuration under a whole range of latitudes, seasons and weather.

To confirm their model's predictions, they built and tested three different arrangements of solar cells on the roof of an M.I.T. laboratory building for several weeks.

The new findings, based on both computer modeling and outdoor testing of real modules, indicate that the biggest boosts in power were seen in situations where improvements are most needed: in locations far from the equator, in winter months and on cloudier days.

"I think this concept could become an important part of the future of photovoltaics," says Jeffrey Grossman, a professor of power engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The improvement in power output and the uniformity of output is due to the modules' ability to take in sunlight during mornings, evenings and winters, when the sun is closer to the horizon, says Marco Bernardi, a graduate student in M.I.T.'s department of materials science and engineering.

While these three-dimensional models cost more than ordinary flat panels, the expense is partially balanced by a much higher energy output for a given footprint, as well as much more uniform power output over the course of a day, over the seasons of the year, and in the face of blockage from clouds or shadows.

These could make power output more predictable and uniform, which could make integration with the power grid easier than with conventional systems, said the researchers.

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