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A team of scientists at Tulane University has developed a hybrid solar energy converter that generates electricity and steam with higher efficiency and low costs.

Solar energy conversion describes technologies that are devoted to transforming solar energy into other useful forms of energy like electricity, fuel, and heat. It includes light-harvesting technologies like traditional semiconductor photovoltaic devices (PVs), emerging photovoltaics, solar fuel production via electrolysis, artificial photosynthesis, and other related forms of photocatalysis directed at the generation of energy-rich molecules.

The fundamental electro-optical aspects of various emerging solar energy conversion technologies for the generation of both electricity, photovoltaic and solar fuels constitute an active avenue of current research and development.

Matthew Escarra led the research team. He works as an associate professor of physics and engineering physics at Tulane University, and Daniel Codd, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of San Diego. The effort is a culmination of a U.S. Department of Energy ARPA-E project that started in 2014 with a funding of USD 3.3 million and involved years of prototype development at Tulane University and Field testing in San Diego.

The research is published this month in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science. The team from San Diego State University, Boeing Spectrolab, and Otherlab were also a part of the project.

The researchers explained that thermal energy consumption is a massive part of the global energy economy, larger than electricity use. There has been a rising interest in solar energy combined with heat and power systems to deliver both electricity and process heat for zero-net-energy and greenhouse gas-free development. 

The new hybrid converter utilizes an approach that fully captures the whole spectrum of sunlight. It generates electricity from high-efficiency multi-junction solar cells that redirect infrared rays of sunshine to a thermal receiver, which converts those rays to thermal energy.

This thermal energy can be stored until needed and used to provide heat for various commercial and industrial uses, such as chemical production, food processing, water treatment, and enhanced oil recovery. The team claims that the system demonstrated 85.1% efficiency, delivered steam up to 248 degrees Celsius, and is projected to have a system leveled cost of 3 cents per kilowatt-hour.

With the right amount of funding from the Louisiana Board of Regents and Reactwell, a local commercialization partner, the research team continues to refine the technology and move towards pilot-scale validation. The team is pleased to have demonstrated a high-performance field operation of the new solar converter and is looking forward to its ongoing commercial development.