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Solar panels heat up quickly when the sun shines on them. As a result, the operating temperature of the panel can rise to more than 65 degrees Celsius. This causes the panels to achieve at most 10-25% of their theoretical efficiency and also makes them age considerably faster. Active cooling with water can make the panel more effective and durable, but requires expensive pumps, valves and heat exchangers that also consume energy. This does not apply to passive (convection) cooling systems, but these also cool less effectively.
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Researchers at Imperial College London looked for a solution in biomimicry: mimicking solutions that already occur in nature to keep organisms cool, such as transpiration. Using this principle, they built a hybrid multi-generation photovoltaic leaf concept. In other words, solar panels that look like leaves of a plant and use a capillary structure similar to a system of roots, wood vessels, and leaf veins. This structure can be made from environmentally friendly and readily available materials, such as bamboo fibres and stacked hydrogel cells. This causes water to move upwards and flow over the solar panels to cool them.

Experiments by the researchers show that the temperature of a solar cell cooled in this way is about 26 degrees Celsius lower than that of an uncooled cell. The electrical efficiency alone will increase by 13.6% as a result. Moreover, the recovered heat can be used to generate additional thermal energy as well as produce fresh water within the same component. This allows a total efficiency of more than 74.5%. Moreover, the system delivers over 1.1 litres of clean water per hour for every square metre of solar cells.

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Image: Gan Huang/Dept. Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London