Monday, November 18, 2013

Transforming the Solar Discussion

The sun's energy has been a central component of the renewable energy cache, including several harnessing technologies such as solar heating, photovoltaics, thermal, architecture and artificial photosynthesis.  Researchers at the University of Cincinnati are bringing forth a new method of solar capture and storage called SmartLight that includes the use of electrofluidic cells in concert with embedded photovoltaics placed at the top of a building's windows.
These solar capture elements are then used to project light into the building through a continuous grid-strip of electrofluidic cells. Lead researcher, Jason Heikenfeld envisions these cell channels running across the top of a room and through room adjoining transom windows for distribution as needed within any of the office building's rooms regardless of its position within the building.

Each tiny cell, 4-5 millimeters wide, contains fluid with special optical properties that can project directly onto the space to be lit or to the next cell. With minimal electrical stimulation, the fluid's surface tension can be rapidly manipulated into lens shapes or prisms creating a controllable source of light.  Each grid is composed of many cells would be directed according to its function. For instance, the grid might direct some light to reflect off the ceiling to provide ambient room lighting. Other light might get focused toward special fixtures for task lighting. Yet another portion of light might be transmitted across the empty, uppermost spaces in a room to an existing or newly installed transom window fitted with its own electrofluidic grid. From there, the process could be repeated to enable sunlight to reach the deepest, most "light-locked" areas of any building. It can all be done without installing new wiring, ducts, tubes or cables.

The tiny electrofluidic cells are made using a fire rated varioptic lens. A varioptic lens pairs up a bit of water with a bit of oil sandwiched between two pieces of glass. With the introduction of the sun's energy, the water changes shape. The newly formed concave shape becomes refract-able and transmittable.

By being transmittable, Heikenfeld points out that the energy from a typical sunny day can then be stored for use on a cloudy day. This is because sunlight on any given normal day, typically 100,000 lux, provides a much more intense lighting than would ever be needed to light a building. SmartLight can funnel surplus light into a centralized harvesting storage hub for later be use when natural light levels are lower. The SmartLight grid provides a dynamic response to varying light levels throughout the day meeting office lighting demand.

Heikenfeld and research partner, Anton Harfmann are very enthusiastic about Smartlight opportunities. Heikenfeld says much of the science and technology required to make the Smart Light commercially viable already exists. He and Harfmann have begun evaluating materials and advanced manufacturing methods. The only thing missing at this point is enough funding to create a large-scale prototype, which could call the attention of government or industry partners interested in bringing SmartLight to market.


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