Sunfolding – A Seeker for Natural and Cheaper Solutions

Sunfolding model with plastic heliostats

 

Sunfolding is an innovative solar project from Otherlab. It is currently headquartered in a pipe organ factory in San Francisco. Instead of traditional motor-driven solar trackers which are primarily composed of glass, steel and wires, Sunfolding uses easily-manufactured plastics and pressure sensors. The new tracking system functions as ideally as the traditional solar tracker but costs five times less.  At the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit 2014, Sunfolding received a 1.8 million grant for its innovation in solar technology. Sunfolding is successfully on its way to make a highly-efficient yet much cheaper solar product.

A heliostat is a device with a mirror which will keep reflecting sunlight at an optimal angle while simultaneously adjusting to the movement of the sun. Traditional heliostats are usually made of glass, or other reflective materials, and steel as support. They need to stand up to strong winds, follow the path of the sun, and require gears that can operate in dusty and hot environments for years. All of these factors make the manufacturing of traditional heliostats expensive. Sunfolding, however, believes that the cheaper price of solar products will make solar energy more competitive and favorable than fossil fuels in the future. It starts by asking the questions cited from its website: “How do we dramatically reduce components and complexity? How do we make the trackers scalable?”  Engineers at Sunfolding are inspired by plants which use tiny shifts in internal pressure to crane toward the sun at an ideal angle. They use air bladders to either inflate or deflate to change the mirror’s angle. “All you neSunfolding_2ed are two cheap pressure sensors”, said Leila Madrone, Otherlab’s project leader. The air bladders are equipped within plastics which are easy and cheap to manufacture. Also, the new heliostats are small and light. They do not need to withstand large structural weight or high winds. This new drive system can be mass-manufactured from ordinary plastics, but it out-performs traditional heavy-steel heliostats even under extreme environmental conditions. In this way, Sunfolding dramatically decreases the costs for tacked optics in solar applications.

Today, Sunfolding is still working hard on testing its solar trackers of hardened products. Its team is taking a completely different approach to solar tracking such as using new actuators made from mass-produced polymers and designing innovative pneumatic systems. Sunfolding aims to design the most cost-efficient solar tracking system with the optimal performance. The story of Sunfolding encourages people to be practical but also creative in energy innovations.

Currently, a revolution is taking place in the solar market. V3Solar has created a spinning conical solar panel, which cools the utility and avoids overheating. Pvilion designs flexible solar fabric that captures solar energy over its entire surface. More and more new projects are bringing diversity and new perspectives into the field of solar energy. Given all these exciting innovations, solar technology is surely destined to draw more public attention in the future.