If you have ever dusted furniture, you know how quickly it can build back up. It’s a frustration for cleaners, but imagine this situation when it comes to solar panels, particularly in desert environments where dust is prevalent. Solar panels are a great source for renewable energy, but they don’t function as well when they are dirty.
This is an issue that has affected many desert communities who wish to use renewable energy, making it almost impossible to use solar power. But, a team from MIT may have come up with a remarkable solution. They have created a material that can effectively clean itself, removing dirt and dust particles.
“Most surfaces are passive,” says Kripa Varanasi, the senior author of a paper describing the new system in the journal Applied Physics Letters. Varanasi is also an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “They rely on gravity, or other forces, to move fluids or particles,” he continued.
Instead of dealing with a passive surface, the team was able to create a material that carries a magnetic charge, with a unique textured surface. The two work together to repel and move debris that would otherwise build-up on the surface. By using an oil that contains a magnetic charge, and inserting it into the actual textured surface, the team was able to answer this difficult problem.
“In the desert environment, dust is present on a daily basis,” says co-author Numan Abu-Dheir of the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) in Saudi Arabia. “The issue of dust basically makes the use of solar panels to be less efficient than in North America or Europe. We need a way to reduce the dust accumulation.”
The scientific community has been impressed with this latest discovery, which could also have applications in the biomedical engineering industry.
Neelesh Patankar, a professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern University, says this research “introduces a new class of approach for droplet-based microfluidic platforms, which have numerous applications in a variety of fields, including biotechnology.” He adds, “This work cleverly combines low-hysteresis droplet movement with low-magnetic-field-driven droplet propulsion to achieve impressive capabilities.”
The team isn’t stopping with their latest discovery. They are currently working on other methods and materials that could accomplish the same goal without the use of magnetics.
These studies show what can happen when engineers take on a task and try to find a solution. It is very exciting for engineering students who hope to be able to make an impact on our world and shows just how innovative engineers can be.
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