Matter & Energy

Matter is composed of atoms or groups of atoms called molecules. The arrangement of particles in a material depends on the physical state of the substance. In a solid, particles form a compact structure that resists flow. Particles in a liquid have more energy than those in a solid. They can flow past one another, but they remain close. Particles in a gas have the most energy. They move rapidly and are separated from one another by relatively large distances.

Concentrating Collectors

For applications such as air conditioning, central power generation, and many industrial heat requirements, flat plate collectors cannot provide carrier fluids at high enough temperatures to be effective. They may be used as first-stage heat input devices; the temperature of the carrier fluid is then boosted by other conventional heating means. Alternatively, more complex and expensive concentrating collectors can be used. These devices reflect the Sun’s rays from a large area and focus it onto a small, blackened receiving area. The light intensity is concentrated to produce temperatures of several hundred or even several thousand degrees Celsius. The concentrators move to track the Sun using devices called heliostats.

Concentrators use curved mirrors with aluminum or silver reflecting surfaces that coat the front or back surfaces of glass or plastic. Researchers are developing cheap polymer films to replace the more expensive glass. One new technique uses a pliable membrane stretched across the front of a cylinder and another across the back with a partial vacuum between. The vacuum causes the membranes to form a spherical shape ideal for concentrating sunlight.

Concentrating solar energy is the least expensive way to generate large-scale electrical power from the Sun’s energy and therefore has the potential to make solar power available at a competitive rate. Consequently, government, industry, and utilities have formed partnerships to reduce the manufacturing costs of concentrators.

One important high-temperature application of concentrators is solar furnaces. Other methods of reaching such temperatures usually require chemical reactants that would also react with the substances to be studied, skewing the results.

Another type of concentrator called a central receiver, or "power tower," uses an array of sun-tracking reflectors mounted on computer-controlled heliostats to reflect and focus the Sun’s rays onto a water boiler mounted on a tower. The steam thus generated can be used in a conventional power-plant cycle to produce electricity.