A New Job For Telescopes - Making Solar Energy

A novel telescope could harvest solar energy by focusing sunlight onto small but powerful photovoltaic cells.

The Researcher

J. Roger Angel

CAN THE TELESCOPE BE THE KEY to new, reliable, ample. clean and cost-efficient source of energy?

J. Roger Angel believes so. Angel is a professor at the University of Arizona and one of three recipients of the 2010 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, which was awarded for innovations in the field of telescope design. In Angel’s case, he created mirrors made of cheap glass and molded them to incorporate a honeycomb pattern of holes, reducing their weight while also increasing their rigidity. His innovations led to bigger telescopes capable of collecting significantly more light – innovations that have made possible the world’s most powerful astronomical telescopes, including the Large Binocular Telescope and the planned Giant Magellan Telescope.

But a warming global climate and our dependence on fossil fuels now has Angel thinking about new applications for this technology. “During the last few years, I realized – perhaps looking for another planets for me can wait a little bit and it’s time to focus on our own planet, because the clock is ticking so fast. And… there’s a lot we [can gain] from astronomy and the making of telescopes that are relevant.”

Angel offered this observation last fall when he gave the Kavli Prize lecture during Science Evening at the Carnegie Institute for Science. In particular, Angel believes there’s a new job for telescopes – making solar electricity. “The same physics of detecting very few photons at night from very far away [to see a distant object in space] are exactly the same as [gathering a large source of protons during the day]. So if you figure out how to do that, then figuring out how to capture the huge number of photons from the Sun, everything is sort of the same, it’s just on a different scale.” Today he is working on a novel telescope that harvests solar energy by focusing sunlight onto small but powerful photovoltaic cells. These “energy telescopes” are designed for mass-production in huge volume for solar farms, at a cost low enough to make unsubsidized solar electricity highly competitive.

"A New Job For Telescopes - Making Solar Energy" was presented on October 12, 2010.

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