1816 Sterling Motor May Drive Solar Energy In 2010

Designed almost 200 years ago, the sterling motor is about to rev up again, and it could mean cost-effective solar energy on a huge scale.

The Scientific American featured the novel solar energy plant, scheduled to start up in early 2010 in Arizona.

The 1.5 megawatt (MW) demonstration site, known as Maricopa Solar, is set to begin operations early January 2010, with units provided by the Arizona-based Stirling Energy Systems (SES).
While 1.5 MW is only a fraction of the power that may be generated at sites SES has contracted to develop in California and Texas, spokesperson Janette Coates says this is a necessary first step in the technology’s commercialization.

“It’s important for our industry to see — and our partners and investors — that we can take a small-scale plant and get it operational before we break ground on larger ones,” Coates told the Scientific American.

The engines boast 31 percent efficiency, a nearly 200 percent jump over most commercial solar power generators.

The engines have somewhat of a checkered past and multiple criticisms. There have been several planned installations over the years, but the Arizona plant could give those other plans the boost they need — assuming the engines work. Engineers have long questioned the engines as they can get troublesome and need a lot of maintenance to keep working.

The engines work by harnessing the power of expanding and condensing gas. The heat from the sun mirror expands gas on one side of the chamber, the other side chamber is cooled. The chambers grow and shrink beneath a piston, driving a crankshaft.

The problems come in keeping the chamber in tune and running smooth. All those parts need constant attention, not the vast, unmanned solar farms people want.

The draw of this system is that it takes very little water — necessary in those big solar farms. It also means that during the maintenance, there is very little disruption of the power flow. If a bed of photovoltaic panels goes down, a big chunk of the output is gone.

It will certainly be an interesting development in the field of green energy, and even if it doesn’t work, it could mean the competition necessary to push all forms of solar power technology even further.

Animated gif thanks to Wikipedia.

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