In 2016 there were 31,000 solar panels installed every hour across the globe. Solar panels, also called photovoltaic cells, convert sunlight directly into electricity and are a critical piece of a sustainable future.
However, when dust and atmospheric particulate matter deposit on the surface of the solar panels, there can be up to 30% energy loss in a matter of weeks. Currently, methods to measure the rates of deposition, sources, meteorological impacts and modeling parameters are large and expensive and the influence of dust deposition over global regions is not well understood.
Graduate student, Michael Valerino has a current prototype under development that utilizes two small 5 Watt solar panels. Through a series of microcontrollers, printed circuit boards, thermocouples and custom designed hardware, the system can measure the same factors as an expensive instrument.
At the cost around $200 compared to $10,000, the prototype is both a valuable research tool and an affordable solution for monitoring private rooftop solar cells. Currently, the prototype utilizes three 3D printed parts, all printed at the Duke Innovation Co-Lab.
The first is an upper mount that attaches the adjustable bracket that secures the solar panels to the water-tight box containing the electronics. Inside the electronics box is a 3D printed fan mount that ensures that the internal cooling fan draws cool air from the outside to prevent overheating. And lastly, a tripod mount serves to hold three 2-foot legs. The strength of this part is paramount to the prototype as it holds the weight of the entire system, as well as stresses from wind. Furthermore, it ensures that the system stays elevated and level, to negate any reading errors from being on the ground.
Ultimately, the entire electronics box will be 3D printed to seamlessly integrate the series of separate parts. The resources available at the Co-Lab have been critical in the design of the prototype and it will be deployed and tested in India in January of 2018.