Science / Technology

South African prototype may solve solar power problem

FILE - In this file photo taken Thursday, Aug 6, 2015, a penguin is hosed down after being washed with detergent to remove oil from its body at the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) in Cape Town, South Africa. The penguins on South Africa's west coast are a big tourist attraction, but their numbers have declined dramatically and scientists are still debating whether fishing has helped push the species to the brink of extinction. (AP Photo/Courtney Quirin)

FILE – In this file photo taken Thursday, Aug 6, 2015, a penguin is hosed down after being washed with detergent to remove oil from its body at the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) in Cape Town, South Africa. The penguins on South Africa’s west coast are a big tourist attraction, but their numbers have declined dramatically and scientists are still debating whether fishing has helped push the species to the brink of extinction. (AP Photo/Courtney Quirin)

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — By thinking small, a group of South African scientists may have pioneered solar technology that has stumped Internet giant Google.

The Helio100 project, based at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape province, is a cost-effective heliostat that harnesses solar power to generate electricity.

A heliostat uses mirrors or lenses to reflect sunlight, concentrating the solar energy onto a receiver tower, which then uses centuries old steam power to generate electricity, explains Sebastian-James Bode, a 28-year-old research engineer working on the South African project.

Until now, building heliostat plants has been prohibitively expensive. In 2011, Google announced that it halted its own heliostat project after researchers could not design an inexpe

nsive model.

“At this point, other institutions are better positioned than Google to take this research to the next level,” Google said back then in a statement, making its findings freely available in a 10-page report. Beginning their work in April 2014, the Helio100 team came up with a much smaller heliostat made of six triangular mirrors that does not need a concrete foundation. They’ve also devised wireless, smart positioning technology that ensures the beam of light is always on target.

This compact construction, makes it “plonkable,” said Bode, meaning it can be plonked down, without only two people needed to set it up.

The device was designed specifically with South Africa in mind, where electricity blackouts have become common, he added.

The next step is to produce the heliostat on an industrial scale, and international investors are already interested, he said. The device is aimed at large-scale production, to generate electricity or heat. It can also be used with other renewable energy sources, like wind and rooftop solar panels.

“The solution for South Africa, and indeed the world’s energy problems, is not a single technology that will do everything,” he said.

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