We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: nature is the best source of inspiration for the design. In that light, scientists from UCLA have designed tiny solar panels disguised as sunflowers that mimic the behavior in plants known as phototropism, which is what plants do when they bend to follow the sun.
To do this, the artificial “sunflower” uses materials to expand and contract with heat in order to bend toward the sun’s warm light. The discovery of this design is huge, as it could help other solar collectors become more efficient in their ability to catch and use sunlight.
According to the scientists behind the design, the sunflower may also offer an alternative to traditional solar panels, which are mostly photovoltaic, meaning they convert solar energy directly into electricity in real-time. This can be impractical outside daylight hours, because it’s hard to transfer the energy into a storable format.
The tiny sunflowers have the potential for generating thermal solar energy, which is an array of gathering cells intertwined with a liquid or gas that conducts heat. If a liquid is used, this may be called solar vapor energy, and it works much like a traditional steam engine or generator. Because this heat travels through an energy-efficient medium, it can be stored more easily. The UCLA scientists say that the sunflowers increased the gathering potential over static solar panels by up to 400 percent and that the use of thermal solar power might make them more suited to scenarios where traditional solar panels aren’t effective or where energy storage is important.
These are major claims, so we’ll be sure to keep an eye out on the development of these artificial sunflowers.